In search of clean water

April 28, 2019

It is now time to focus on creating coherent policy frameworks for an equitable and sustainable use of ground water

In search of clean water

Lahore, as the most populated city of Punjab is facing a serious water shortage threat. The groundwater level is declining in the city with a depletion rate of approximately 2.5 to 3.0 feet per year, which is alarming. To tackle this, the Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) Lahore has decided to utilise surface water from the Bambanwala-Ravi-Bedian (BRB) Canal for drinking purpose.

According to a report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF) in 2017, the water table depth in the central part of the city has fallen below 130 feet (40 metres) and is projected to drop below 230 feet (70 metres) in most areas by 2025. If the present trend continues the situation will become even worse by 2040.

Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), a government agency reveals that Pakistan will face absolute water scarcity by 2025. PCRWR earlier stated that the country crossed the ‘water scarcity line’ way back in 2005 after having crossed the ‘water stress line’ in 1990.

In Lahore, groundwater resources are heavily over-exploited to fulfil the demands of irrigation and urban utilisation. Lahore’s population of over 11 million is supplied with 1.29 MAF daily of groundwater extracted through hand pumps, motor pumps, and tube wells. It is clear that groundwater withdrawal is more than the annual average recharge; due to which, the water table is continuously depleting.

The Lahore aquifer is broadly viewed as a single contiguous, unconfined aquifer. It is pumped for Lahore’s domestic, industrial and commercial purposes. In order to deal with the vagaries of surface water supplies, more than 10,000 tube wells have been installed for agricultural purposes.

Chief Executive Officer LEAD (Leadership for Environment and Development) Pakistan, Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, says that groundwater is a critical component of the global freshwater reserves. Like all natural resources, groundwater sustainability is increasingly threatened by socio-economic pressures and climate change. In practice groundwater pumping for agriculture, domestic use and even industry are neither monitored nor metered.

"The main challenges include ensuring long term yields, maintaining water quality and preserving dependent aquatic systems. Groundwater issues need to be addressed through a holistic approach which should encompass climate change, water governance, equitable sharing, sustainability, natural ecology and other interconnected areas", he emphasises.

Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) Lahore is responsible for fulfilling the demands of water supply in the provincial capital. Currently, groundwater or water extracted from wells is a major source of water for WASA. Through 620 tube wells, it covers a 90 percent population of the city excluding Cantonment, Defence Housing Authority, Model Town, Railway Colonies and GORs (Government Officers’ Residence).

Pakistan will face absolute water scarcity by 2025. PCRWR, in a research, stated that the country crossed the ‘water scarcity line’ way back in 2005 after having crossed the ‘water stress line’ in 1990.

Bambanwala-Ravi-Bedian (BRB) Canal, also called Ichogil Canal, begins near Daska at the point of Bambanwala Village from Upper Chenab Canal and passes through the city of Daska and east side of the city of Lahore. It is also another source of supplying water to Lahore mainly used for agriculture purposes. The total surface water diverted to Lahore is 6.02 million cubic meters per day (MCM/day).

Following the request of WASA, Punjab Irrigation department has approved a link to supply of 100 cusecs (28.317 litres per second) to the agency. Deputy Director WASA Imtiaz Mujtaba states that link of supply would be built at ‘Siphon’; Siphon is a point from where BRB Canal crosses River Ravi, near the Lahore border. Forest Department has principally agreed to allocate 300 acres at Mehmood Booti area to implant treatment units.

"There are three phases to acquire surface water from BRB Canal which will be injected in the water distribution system. Phase 1 is to acquire 100 cusecs water, and this quantity would touch 1,000 cusecs by 2035. Under this project, the agency will initially construct three wastewater treatment plants and one surface water treatment plant in the provincial metropolis", he mentions.

Negotiations with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are underway to acquire a soft loan amounting to Rs50 billion for the Waste and Surface Water Treatment Project. Mujtaba says that this mega project would not only provide clean drinking water to the citizens but will also save the underground water aquifer.

According to a report by the WaterAid Pakistan, underground water levels of some of the biggest cities of the province are down by 90 percent, with Lahore, Lodhran, Vehari, Khanewal, and Multan among the fastest depleting freshwater resources. WaterAid Pakistan is an international not-for-profit, determined to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene accessible to everyone.

The report says that the remaining 10 percent underground water is highly contaminated with arsenic particles. Exposure to even relatively low amounts of arsenic in drinking water can increase the risk of developing certain cancers, including skin, lung, kidney, bladder, and liver.

Many studies have found higher arsenic levels, i.e. 50 parts per billion (PPB) per litre in pumped groundwater in Lahore. This arsenic concentration is much higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard. The WHO’s provisional guideline value is 10 μg/L (micrograms per litre) or 10 PPB.

Environment lawyer and activist Ahmad Rafay Alam does believe in the present water crises but is of the view that the policy of acquiring water from BRB Canal should be an emergency measure. "Roughly, six mega projects to combat water crises were either commenced or coined by the previous governments on river Ravi but not a single one came out as a solid and effective scheme".

"The way we are consuming water would certainly be taking us towards a disaster. Rivers like Ravi and Satluj are not available to us to recharge underground water level and we are not concerned to change our bad habits of wasting water", says Alam.

Of course, one question that does arise here is this: Will BRB’s surface water actually be safe for drinking purposes, as most of available surface water has human excreta and municipal waste mixed with it? Alam says that since tube wells are adversely effected by seepage from sewerage/drainage systems, quality of shallow groundwater is generally considered poor. However, he adds that WASA’s treatment plants will treat BRB’s surface water according to health standards.

Rainfall is another source to recharge the city’s underground water storage apart from Ravi’s water supply. The average annual rainfall of Lahore is 715 mm. However, its recharge to groundwater in urban areas is minimal due to urbanisation. Therefore, groundwater discharge rate is higher than the recharge rate, which is the main reason for the rapid depletion of groundwater in the city.

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh strongly suggests that the provincial government should turn the focus towards creation of coherent policy frameworks for the equitable and sustainable use of ground water. "It is important to monitor the quantity of groundwater withdrawn, but quality has also become a serious concern. Regulations need to be enacted to control groundwater degradation, and penalties against industrial pollution need to be enforced".

In search of clean water