Water stress and climate change

The focus should be on pricing for water use and penalties for water waste

Water stress and  climate change


orld Water Day is observed on March 22 every year to highlight the importance of freshwater. The day is used to advocate for sustainable management of water resources. Pakistan is among the water scarce countries.

Pakistan was once rich in fresh water, with more than 5,200 cubic metres fresh water available per capita at the time of independence. Today the availability has dropped to less than 1,000 cubic metres per capita. The monumental decline is alarming, and it is feared that there may be absolute water scarcity in the country by 2025.

Global atmospheric changes like the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) have resulted in increased global temperature. This is threatening biodiversity loss, disruption in biogeochemical cycles, food insecurity, water scarcity, migration and loss of forest cover.

The growing global emissions have put a huge pressure on natural resources along with their capacity to deliver. This has resulted in degradation of natural resources and increased pollution. Water scarcity is a great threat to human survival. Without water, human civilisation cannot survive for more than a few days. Still, water often taken for granted and is an undervalued resource.

Water availability per capita is a poor indicator of our water woes. Only 32 countries have less water per person than Pakistan which is the fifth most populous country in the world.

Population growth has been one of the major drivers behind the stressed waterscape of Pakistan. Rapid urbanization and climate change can put further pressure on our water resources and push the country to absolute water scarcity.

Water stress is not being handled properly as climate change has started to hit the country. The stress is going to increase due to the growing demand for water, mainly from a rising population, rapid unstructured urbanisation, adverse impacts of climate change and the continuing degradation of water quality which is as important as quantity. This pressure will push the country close to the threshold of absolute water scarcity.

The theme for the 2022 Water Day was, Groundwater, Making the Invisible Visible. Pakistan’s water use is heavily dominated by four major crops - wheat, rice, sugarcane and cotton – that consume nearly 80 percent of the water to generate only 5 percent of the GDP.

Water is a highly underpriced commodity. This results in a highly inefficient use of water in the country. The economic cost from poor water sanitation, floods and droughts is conservatively estimated to be 4 percent of the GDP (around $12-14 billion).

The agriculture sector is consuming a huge quantity of water and there is no tap on it. The way forward is to develop and implement water governance protocols in line with best international practices and focus on water economics and food nexus for sustained economic input to the GDP.

Population growth has been one of the major drivers behind the stressed waterscape of Pakistan. Rapid urbanisation and climate change will put further pressure on our water resources and can push the country to absolute water scarcity. 

A twist to the scenario is virtual water trade. The country’s water strategy of investing most of its scarce resource in a handful of crops needs to be questioned.

Climate Change and Water Scarcity, a report by Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), says Pakistan’s water productivity is less than $1 per cubic metre compared to the global water productivity of around $17. The water use efficiency is $51.6 per cubic metre. Water use efficiency for the agriculture sector is particularly low while it consumes more than 90 percent of all water withdrawal. The trend showed a little improvement - from $0.19 per cubic metre to $0.30 per cubic metre - from 2002 to 2017. This may be due to the transition towards high-value crops. The industrial sector showed a more significant improvement in water use efficiency from $6.01 to $34.35 per cubic metre. Likewise, the services sector showed a little improvement in water use efficiency.

The report says, “Unsustainable irrigation practice is the main reason in Pakistan for water scarcity. The agriculture sector is consuming a huge quantity of water. Pakistan is exporting water-concentrated agricultural commodities and imports low delta produce.”

Pakistan’s water scarcity can be addressed through data gathering, improved efficiency, reduced losses and improved sowing as indicated in other studies.

The limited water resource is one facet of the problem, however. Water governance is the other page that requires dedicated attention. Policymakers have to play a pivotal part in revisiting and reviving water governance. They need to address governance issues like low water rate (abiana) assessment and collection.

An important aspect is to focus on areas where the public and private sectors can work together. Farmers and other groups should participate in discussions fair water distribution through canals and watercourses, improved groundwater governance and justified electricity subsidies, interprovincial conflicts and trans-boundary issues.

Instant efforts are required to build around water accounting, audit, and water accountability systems. Public-private partnerships can create a portal providing information on glaciers, their storage capacity and river flow data.

Pricing should be the focus for water use and penalties for water wastage. Emphasis should be on improving infrastructure and technology-embedded services.

More efforts are required in improving water use in agriculture by exploiting current institutional capacities with enhanced technological skills by employing scientific research and new knowledge to agricultural practices through innovative methods to uplift the skillset of the farmers and other groups associated with the agriculture sector.

The writer is a researcher associated with the Centre for Private Sector   Engagement at   Sustainable    Development Policy Institute

Water stress and climate change