In Focus

Pakistan’s Climate-induced Water Scarcity and its Impact on Agriculture

Pakistan lies in the list of top ten countries that would be most affected by climate change. Climate-induced water scarcity poses grave dangers to the agro-based economy, which must be mitigated through robust policy and technological advancement in the agricultural sector.



Water is one of the most abundant compounds present on the planet Earth, covering 71 percent of its surface area.1 The dilemma of water is that despite its abundance, only below 3 percent is freshwater suitable for consumption and even less than half of this is available for human use, as the rest of it is stored in the form of glaciers and permafrost.2 To add to the dilemma, 1.3 percent of this available freshwater is also not evenly distributed. We have states ranging from wetlands to semi-arid, arid and even deserts. This scarce resource is not only vital for human survival but also a source of development and sustenance of human civilization and a key driver of socioeconomic development. Like the global water quandary, Pakistan faces a similar dilemma. The country is home to Himalaya-Karakoram-Hindu Kush (HKH) region in its north that has snow-covered peaks and wide stretches of glaciers shining like a diamond crown on the country’s head. The country is also home to the mighty Indus River with its tributaries running through the length of the country like its veins, guaranteeing its survival and existence. However, the country is practically a water-stressed semi-arid landmass rapidly turning into a water scarce, arid state. This research article claims that global climate change is likely to impact water availability in Pakistan, leading to serious repercussions for the agrarian society, thereby threatening not merely the economy, but also security and social fabric of the society. 
Pakistan’s Water Profile
Today’s Pakistan is the modern continuation of one of the greatest and most ancient civilizations. The Indus Valley Civilisation named after the Indus River flourished across its banks over 2500 years ago. Map of the Indus Valley Civilisation and today’s Pakistan are near overlays of each other. Since then, this region has been populated according to the variability of water availability. The Indus River comprising Indus, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej and Kabul rivers is the only basin that provides lifeline to Pakistan. This basin is shared by Pakistan (52.5%), India (33.5%), China (11%) and Afghanistan (3%). This basin is divided between India and Pakistan through the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) of 1960. Being a lower riparian state, Pakistan enjoys exclusive rights on three western rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab). Total of 80 million acre feet (MAF) water that flows down these rivers comprises 76 percent of net water flows through Pakistan. Almost 80 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million population resides within the Indus Basin. The river contributes to nearly 90 percent of country’s food production, 25 percent of GDP, 47 percent of total employment and 60 percent of annual national foreign exchange earnings. Pakistan’s largest industry, i.e., textile, is also an agro-based industry. 
Climatic Challenges to Pakistan’s Waters
The Indus Basin is under severe climatic and social stress resulting in threats to Pakistan’s water security. The rising temperature is resulting in speedy melting of glaciers, whereas net precipitation in the region is decreasing, leading to lesser snowfall in the mountains in winters, thus reducing downstream flows in the summers. Resultantly, the pattern of water availability is changing in the region. The region naturally received 70 percent of water flows in the monsoon season, whereas the remaining 30 percent of flows would happen in the rest of the nine months of the year. However, under climatic stress, the region is now receiving up to 90 percent of its water flows in the monsoon and mere 10 percent in the remaining time of the year. This variability is resulting in recurring cycles of droughts and floods. Both phenomena are negatively impacting the socioeconomic sustainability of Pakistan with particularly severe consequences for its agriculture sector. Changing climate is putting the whole South Asian region under stress. India, being an upper riparian state enjoys limited rights on Pakistan’s rivers under the IWT. India’s anti-Pakistan behavior is further intensified by its growing demands for water and increasing impact of climate change. Thus, Indian exploitation of grey areas of the IWT has been further intensified. India has already constructed some major dams and is currently working on many others that will result in reduced flows of water downstream. In addition, climate change is also degrading catchment areas and increasing temperatures are leading to more water losses. Furthermore, water flow down the Kotri Barrage has dropped to nearly zero. This has resulted in degradation of the Indus Delta where sea water intrusion is engulfing fertile lands and destruction of mangroves has eroded the last defense line of these lands against the sea. To further exacerbate the situation, Pakistan has witnessed a population explosion since the time of independence.3 Pakistan’s population has increased up to seven times whereas water availability has significantly reduced. As a result of this, per capita water availability that was more than 5500 cubic meter per capita has now dropped down below 1000 cubic meter per capita.4 These developments made Pakistan a water-stressed country in 1993 and it is heading towards scarcity line that it is expected to surpass by 2025.5 Despite these stresses, Pakistan is still the most water intense economy in the world with no other country having higher water consumption to GDP ratio.6 Also, Pakistan stores only 15 percent of its water annually that is among the lowest in the world.  


The Indus River comprising Indus, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej and Kabul rivers is the only basin that provides lifeline to Pakistan. This basin is shared by Pakistan (52.5%), India (33.5%), China (11%) and Afghanistan (3%). 


Water Scarcity and Challenges for the Agriculture Sector of Pakistan
Pakistan is an agro-based economy located in a semi-arid region. Its water resources including monsoon and westerly rainfall, glaciers of Himalaya-Karakoram-Hindu Kush and groundwater reserves are limited and overexploited.  Agriculture sector is the largest consumer of Pakistan’s freshwater amounting up to 93 percent. As discussed earlier, this water is greatly dependent on weather and climatic conditions. Therefore, climatic stress affecting water availability is negatively impacting Pakistan’s agriculture sector. It is worth noting that the drivers of water scarcity in Pakistan are not merely climatic, but also demographic and administrative.  Additionally, salinity and waterlogging are issues associated with climate and water variability. Agriculture sector in Pakistan contributes up to 21 percent of total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and provides food to the population of over 220 million that is increasing at the rate of 2 percent. It is a dilemma that despite consuming 93 percent of freshwater, agriculture sector is employing just 43 percent of country’s workforce and its share in GDP has been continuously declining. It contributed up to 60 percent to the total GDP in 1960s. Further, Pakistan has become a net importer of food and even imports wheat. So, climate-induced water scarcity along with other factors has already affected the agriculture sector of Pakistan and with novel climatic threats, the agriculture sector will face increased risks. Declining agriculture due to climate-induced water stress will put Pakistan’s food security under threat. Already, more than half of the country’s population is food insecure. Furthermore, agriculture sector’s instability will affect the country’s economy as well as human security.  The change in climate and the resultant rise in temperature results in low-cropped yield and reduced nutritional status of food.7 Similarly, climate-induced disasters in the form of flash floods linked to water variability can threaten the sown crops and result in the loss of grain stock. In Pakistan, of the total 79.6 million hectares geographical area, about 27 percent currently comes under cultivation. Almost 86 percent of this cultivable area is irrigated, making Pakistan’s irrigation cropped areas among the highest proportions in the world.8 The total cultivated area of Pakistan has increased from 11.6 million hectares in 1947 to 23.4 million hectares in 2007. Of this, only 8.3 million hectares is used for high crop yield. 



The region naturally received 70 percent of its water flows in the monsoon season, whereas the remaining 30 percent of flows would happen in the rest of the nine months of the year. However, under climatic stress, the region is now receiving up to 90 percent of water flows in the monsoon and mere 10 percent in the remaining time of the year. 


Pakistan has one of the largest contiguous irrigation networks. This includes a sophisticated system of canals, distributaries and water courses. On the one hand, this enormous irrigation system enabled Pakistan to go through a Green Revolution to fulfill the food needs of its rapidly growing population, but on the other, operational and management related issues balance the equation. Pakistan’s agriculture depends heavily on irrigation and 90 percent of its agricultural output comes from irrigated lands. Thus, water scarcity makes agriculture sector the biggest victim. Climate change coupled with reduced and varied water availability impact the crop yield. Wheat and rice are the main staple crops in Pakistan and both are water extensive. Other major crops of Pakistan include cotton, maize, and sugarcane. Among these, sugarcane too requires a large amount of water. Cotton (also called white gold) is the largest cash crop of Pakistan. Water shortage also affects the cotton crops and reduces productivity, directly impacting textile industry and the overall economy of the country. At many places in Pakistan, agriculture is facing water shortage up to 50 percent. Water shortage and delayed availability is affecting grain size, stem size and number of grains per panicle in wheat and rice crops. It is also affecting the productivity of sugarcane crop that is the major raw material for sugar production in Pakistan. Apart from these major crops, production of tomatoes, chillies, pulses and other vegetables has also been hit hard in various parts of the country, causing a rise in food prices. Pakistan produces some of the best fruits in the world including mangoes9 and citrus, etc. Lastly, the dairy farming sector that is closely dependent upon agriculture and water is also under threat. Negative impacts of water shortage on agriculture are already being felt by the state and society of Pakistan. 


It is a dilemma that despite consuming 93 percent of freshwater, agriculture sector is employing just 43 percent of country’s workforce and its share in GDP has been continuously declining. 


Reduction in agricultural productivity not only has economic, but also social and political repercussions. As land degradation and desertification processes intensify, it creates a push factor forcing people to migrate to other areas. This leads towards increased burden on urban centers, which are already water stressed. The migrating population also settles in ecologically sensitive areas, further exacerbating the environmental conditions. It also creates violent conflicts at various levels. Thomas Homer Dixon has put Pakistan in the list of countries most vulnerable to violent conflicts triggered by environmental factors.10  Conflicts among farmers over the issue of water distribution is an old phenomenon that is taking momentum due to climate change. Also, we have already seen inter-provincial discontent on the issue of water distribution.11 Indus River System Authority (IRSA) has been under severe pressure while regulating water distribution accord, mainly due to water shortage in the rivers. Thus, the implications of agriculture sector’s performance touch every sphere of life in Pakistan. 



Reduction in agricultural productivity not only has economic, but also social and political repercussions. As land degradation and desertification processes intensify, it creates a push factor forcing people to migrate to other areas. 


The Way Forward
The above discussion reveals a bleak picture for Pakistan’s agriculture sector in the wake of climate-induced water scarcity. The country’s largest water reserves are facing the risk of up to 33 percent reduction in storage capacity. The agriculture sector is gradually losing capacity to meet the demands of the population and is relying on imported food. Thus, the most pressing need is to take some pragmatic measures as discussed below:
Adaptation of More Efficient Irrigation Techniques. Pakistan is among the most water-intense economies in the world. This is due to the use of conventional flood irrigation system. The future demands the use of more efficient techniques like drip and sprinkle irrigation techniques. For this, provision of technology and education to the farmers is vital.
Groundwater Regulation. Unfortunately, groundwater is not being regulated in Pakistan. Therefore, our water table is significantly depleting. Farmers are installing tubewells and water pumps at their will, causing rapid depletion of water table and creating problems of salinity.
Construction of New Dams. Pakistan has not been able to construct a dam since the construction of Mangla and Tarbela. Work on Diamer-Bhasha Dam is continuing, however, this seems to be a late move. In addition, small dams have also been ignored in the wake of cons attached to mega dams.
Implementation of National Water Policy. Pakistan’s water policy is a well deliberated and efficient document. However, it has been witnessed that the policy is not being implemented and is not reflected in the behavior of state institutions.
New Agricultural Research. There is a need to divert agriculture research towards producing water efficient seed quality. Some scientists also recommend shifting from existing crop patterns to new cash crops and completely becoming dependent on imported food. However, this is an extreme option that can have consequences for national security and economic sustainability. So, the alternate option remains developing new seeds with less water consumption. National Agriculture Research Council has already initiated research on this.


The writer is a lecturer at National Defence University, Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]


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