Water disruptions

Pakistan needs to deal with water disruptions in a climate-sensitive way

With each passing year, climate change is disrupting water systems in Pakistan. The policy choices are deepening the climate crisis instead of mitigating its impacts on water bodies and systems. This is a great tragedy.

The melting glaciers mean less fresh water storage in snow and ice, more variation in river flows and greater uncertainty in water flow. Higher than traditional flows cause floods and lower flows produce droughts. The increasing urban heat is increasing evaporation. A one percent rise in temperature cases four percent more water storage in the atmosphere. Warmer air holds more water by taking a significant amount of water from the land. The high atmospheric water vapour brings extreme rains that soil cannot absorb. The result is floods — water finds its way. A strong flood can damage water supply infrastructure and freshwater bodies. A strong flood can also pollute freshwater bodies by carrying chemicals on its way.

A body of warmer water helps microbes such as e-coli thrive. A one percent rise in temperature gives a lot more power to the microbes to reach more people and infect them.

The rising temperature also causes a significant rise in the water demand: to cool, bathe and irrigate. A significant increase in water use accentuates the water disruptions.

The consequences of these disruptions are pretty visible in Pakistan. The floods are devastating urban properties and the droughts are forcing peasants to starve. Water-borne microbes are making more people sick. Some are defying even the strongest antibiotics.

We need to respond to this change by noticing the water disruptions around us. A reversal of water disruptions in Pakistan requires an understanding of the relationship between climate change and water since they are related. It is challenging to deal with a country’s water disruptions without feeling climate change through the medium of water. It implies using a well-crafted climate lens to understand our water disruptions and deal with them.

Unfortunately, governments prefer solutions advocated by engineers and economists based on abstract calculations. The solutions work through grey infrastructure, i.e. pipes, waterproof surfaces, tube wells, etc. They do not take into account how nature manages water. The hegemony of these solutions has turned our cities into water-insensitive places where considerations of class and lifestyle are decisive in water use. The infrastructure has a built-in bias. Unfortunately, our cities not only use more water than they can recharge, they also waste a lot. As a result, the environmental footprint of this water infrastructure is too large. , It adds to the problem it should contribute to ending.

The PTI government is delivering its water programme through a paradigm of grey infrastructure designed and installed by engineers. The filtration plants being installed across the Punjab and the water supply schemes advance a kind of technical fetishism that can hardly reduce water disruptions produced by the changing climate. The cost of installing filtration plants and sustaining them may not be financially viable in the long run. Moreover, the filtered water does not reach every tap. It reaches only those who can transport it to their homes from the filtration plants. Though the filtration plants may provide safe water, if they are run properly, they can hardly contribute to the more significant problem of climate change. They may benefit only a limited numbers of users. Of course, it will be impossible for a government to provide filtered water to every citizen.

Therefore, the use of grey infrastructure to deal with water disruptions may not reverse climate changes because of a limited, short-term focus. Being climate-sensitive in providing water requires long-term thinking and broader engagements with nature and people.

A climate-sensitive way of dealing with water disruptions requires a regime to turn to nature-based solutions, which require bringing service in harmony with nature. It requires a rethinking of the abstract ways of designing infrastructures under engineering and economic efficiency considerations. These solutions mimic nature and strengthen it to restore the natural order of managing water.

These solutions may be identified as blue-green infrastructure. They bring the water systems and green infrastructure together and help water systems adapt to the changing climate. They reduce the incidence of flooding and use natural ways to reduce water contamination. They are more likely to be sustainable in the long run as maintaining them is generally more affordable compared to the concrete and machine-based grey infrastructure operated by the engineers.

Many cities worldwide are advancing blue-green infrastructure and restoring the natural water cycles disrupted by the hegemonic engineering paradigm of water management. Rio de Janeiro is an impressive example of blue-green water infrastructure. Singapore is another. New York, Copenhagen, Rotterdam and Philadelphia are fast on the path of becoming blue-green. These examples are inspiring as they are becoming blue-green despite having access to sophisticated technological solutions to deal with water disruptions.

Pakistan needs to break with its fixation with dealing its water disruptions with machines, abstract calculations and formulas and technical solutions. By turning to nature-based solutions, Pakistan can make a move to deal with its water disruptions in a climate-sensitive way by bringing water management and greenery together.

The writer is a   scholactivist with Forman Christian College university and Punjab Urban Resource Centre in Lahore

Water disruptions