Pakistan is an agricultural country and issue of water scarcity is a looming crisis that it faces at present, despite the fact that we have reservoirs in the form of glaciers and several rivers flowing through our country. Among the many reasons is that climate change has changed the weather and precipitation patterns, which is compounded by the water conservation practices prevalent in the country at both national and individual levels. Not only does this crisis have the potential to impact Pakistan’s agriculture, which accounts for 23% of the country’s GDP and employs 42% of its workforce, but it also poses an existential danger to the nation’s food and energy security, as well as its overall security concerns. The other facet of this coin is that a person is considered water insecure if they do not have access to safe water to meet their needs for drinking, washing, or their livelihood.
According to a report written by Dr. Muhammad Ashraf for Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Pakistan breached the water scarcity line in 2005 after touching it in 1990 due to water stress. He also added that Pakistan will expectedly cross the absolute water scarcity line by the year 2025, if root causes are not identified, and policy to deal with them and serious execution measures not taken by the ministries and responsible authorities of Pakistan. Similar calculative report has been laid out by Pakistan Institute of Development Economics in its report, “Water Crisis in Pakistan: Manifestation, Causes and the Way Forward, 2022.” According to the report, the nation is ranked 14th out of the world’s 17 “very high-water risk” nations, which also includes hot, dry nations like Saudi Arabia. It also added that more than 80% of the people experience “severe water scarcity” for at least one month of the year. Moreover, the water crisis situation is strategically more challenging because Pakistan is India’s lower riparian nation and receives 78% of its water imports from that country, in addition to surface water. But most alarmingly, only two-thirds of the available water is being used, and the other one-third is either lost or being dumped into the ocean.
In 1960, as a result of mediation by the World Bank Group, a water-distribution treaty between India and Pakistan, the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), was signed. The treaty was signed to resolve the Indo-Pak water conflict of past nine years after partition when India suddenly suspended water flow of rivers originating in its territory. As Pakistan relies significantly on river water for irrigation, this suspension posed a threat to Pakistan’s agricultural and agrarian infrastructure.
This treaty was more or less upheld till 1990 when India announced the building of the Baglihar Dam on the Chenab while fully ignoring Pakistan’s objections to the dam’s design. Meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission, which brings together representatives from both nations to discuss matters pertaining to the IWT were also held, but no agreement could be reached. Ultimately, Pakistan was left to rely on the opinion of the World Bank’s impartial expert, whose decision did not obstruct the construction of the dam. In addition, India has started building dams on the western rivers, including the Chenab, Jhelum, and Neelum in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir and inside the Indian territory. The Ratle, Kishanganga, and Sawalkot dams as well as the Wullar Barrage have drawn strong opposition from Pakistan since they may significantly alter the flow of the Chenab and Jhelum rivers, endangering Pakistan’s irrigation system and the supply of water for drinking and domestic use.
According to analysts, one of the main causes of the water problem is the fact that Pakistan lost control of three eastern tributaries of the Indus River. Before the agreement, the Indus River System received 117 MAF of water as a total intake. Currently, Pakistan only receives 80 MAF, which is divided among its provinces. This allotment is based on population rather than water quality, which varies depending on the region.
The water availability plus its renewability resources ratio is declining drastically compared to the water usage ratio as a result of the burgeoning population growth. Statistical calculations state that Pakistan’s population expanded 2.6 times between 1972 and 2020, elevating it from ninth to fifth place. Between 1977 and 2017, Pakistan’s total water demand increased by roughly 0.7 per cent year while its total water resources remained constant. The ratio of water withdrawals to renewable water resources increased from 62 per cent to 82 per cent between 1977 and 2017, indicating increased demand on water supplies.
Climate change is another serious threat aggravating the water crises in Pakistan, which is one of the most vulnerable countries of the world with regards to climate change. Due to this particular cause, future aggregate water flows are expected to decrease. Most forecasts indicate that the flows will trend downward and become more variable in the future (50 to 75 years). As the primary source of water for Pakistan, the Indus River Basin is extremely vulnerable to climate change because it depends on glacial- and snowmelt, and precipitation. It is expected that either due to the early melt of the snow and ice runoff, vanishing glaciers of Hindu Kush-Karakorum-Himalaya ranges and cooler summers will initially cause landslides, severe flooding, dam breaks, and soil erosion, followed by drought and famine, in future.
However, despite the factors mentioned above, Pakistan has plenty of water to meet all its current and future needs provided we treat it as a vital but scarce resource. Unfortunately, at both the government and individual levels water wastage is a fact. Our poor water management system coupled with outdated irrigation system not only declines agricultural productivity but also wastes our canal irrigation water. Large-scale water wastage is a result of the deteriorating water infrastructure. The water usage for agriculture is based on the technologies or systems of the late 19th century and early 20th century that continue to waste water. traditional flood irrigation practices lead to overwatering crops and have led to waterlogging of soil in addition to the utter wastage of this precious resource. Inefficiencies in the current water management systems of agriculture and industry continue to grow, as more and more water is pumped out, in many cases unregulated, from surface and groundwater bodies, with lesser contributions to the recharging of our water resources.
With an overall efficiency of just 39 per cent, the nation’s irrigation system ranks among the least effective in the world due to deterioration and neglect. This indicates that just 55 billion cubic meters (BCM) of the 143 BCM is available at the canal headworks and is being utilized in the agriculture sector. The remaining water (61 per cent or 87 BCM) is lost while being transported through canals, distributaries, minors, and watercourses.
Pakistan’s water storage capacity is limited to a maximum 30-day supply, far below the 1,000-day storage capacity recommended for a country. There is a dearth of large and small scale dams in Pakistan and most of the water that can be recycled and reutilized ends up in the ocean and is wasted. Hence, dams having minimal environmental and social cost should be prioritized whose waters can be used for all purposes, e.g., drinking, agriculture, electricity, and fisheries.
Unfortunately, the habit of squandering water everywhere in households, industries, restaurants, etc., has contributed to an alarming situation of water scarcity. Most of it is wasted during washing clothes and kitchen utensils, and even in taking showers, running toilets, dripping faucets, leaks, etc.
Due to lack of water purification policies, plants, and pathetic drainage system the incidence of polluted water consumption has also increased. Over the years, contamination with high levels of heavy metals, specifically arsenic, lead etc., has been reported that makes the contaminated groundwater systems unusable for canal irrigation of agricultural crops as well as for human use. Also, about half of the two million wet tons of human waste produced each year end up polluting Pakistani waterways, again making this water unfit for use.
Reassessment of our policies (National Water Policy, Punjab Water Act 2019, Balochistan Integrated Water Resources Management Policy 2006 (IWRM), Sindh’s Agriculture Policy 2018, KP’s Drinking Water Policy 2015 and Climate Change Policy 2016) has now become the utmost requirement in order to overcome a number of flaws that included lack of scientific foundation, a failure to address problems with water quality and the absence of achievable targets in these policies. This will help out to address the issues at the implementation stage and it will also aid in recovering the costs of the irrigation system, water pricing, future impacts of climate change on water, etc. Therefore, it is high time that the canal water distribution figures of 48% going to Punjab, about 42 per cent to Sindh, 7 per cent to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and about 3 per cent to Balochistan, set under the Water Apportionment Accord of 1991 should be re-evaluated.
Controlling the water crisis is not an insurmountable target that cannot be achieved; many countries have overcome their water security issue. Farmers need to get trained on precision periodic irrigation system rather than just flooding the whole field. Farmers should be financially facilitated to construct systems of precision irrigations like bed irrigation, sprinklers, or pressurized irrigations, etc., and aided in field leveling techniques with improvised farm layouts. Measures should be taken to use saline water systems in combination with canal irrigation so that usage burden is minimized. This will not only save water wastage but will augment our agricultural efficiency by minimizing the microbial attacks that destroy the crops specifically during the rainy season.
Instead of constructing small dams with weak infrastructure the focus should be on the construction of larger dams specifically on our tributaries. Besides being large storage reservoirs dams can contribute to generating energy plants that will ultimately reduce the power or simply electricity costs to a greater extent. Also, high risk of over flooding and rainwater wastage will be minimized. Additionally, cleaning measures should be taken by initiating watershed management programs for the reservoirs that have no space for storage due to the massive sedimentations.
Regrettably, untreated disposal of effluent and drainage water has not only threatened our marine ecosystems but its use for irrigation in peri-urban areas has adversely affected the human health and environment. Relevant authorities should understand that both drainage and waste waters are resources that can be exploited to close the supply-demand imbalance for water by recycling and treatment.
The majority of issues with the water sector have their roots in illiteracy, and a lack of knowledge about water conservation techniques. It is necessary to launch campaign for societal awareness about the need for conservation of water. The main tenets that should be focused on in these campaigns should be limited use of water at individual level, eliminating the habit of dumping wastes like plastics in the household drainage streams that ultimately choke drainage lines. Also, education systems should be developed to apprise the farmers about efficient irrigation methods, technologies, and practices as they have a vital role in minimizing the water crisis concerns of this country in addition to being the segment most severely impacted. HH
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