Pakistan needs to reconsider water governance if it wants to address the serious water challenges ahead, claims Syed Mohammad Ali, a scholar with extensive experience in the development sector in Pakistan, in a recent article published in The Express Tribune.
Dr Ali warns Pakistan’s worsening water crisis can exacerbate water sharing disputes with India and between provinces, and have numerous negative impacts on citizens. Particularly affected are poor farmers as well as the urban poor. Pakistan receives funds from international organizations such as the World Bank, USAID, and the Asian Development Bank to improve water governance, but Dr Ali notes the country’s poor management of water resources, which is also very inequitable.
Water infrastructure in urban centres has long been neglected, leading to the contamination of drinking water. Those without money to pay for bottled water suffer the health impact of deficient water and sanitation services, in the form of water-borne diseases.
The use of water for agriculture also needs attention, as most of the available freshwater goes to irrigation. Largely unregulated groundwater withdrawal, the use of flood irrigation practices, and water intensive crops, contribute to water scarcity. Only the wealthier farmers can afford expensive agricultural technologies, while those without resources are left out.
Major environmental issues in Pakistan include water pollution from raw sewage industrial waste and agricultural runoff, along with limited natural fresh water resources, according to the UNDP. To complicate things, Pakistan is one of the most climate-vulnerable nations, ranking 8th in the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, which analyses to what extent countries have been affected by weather-related loss events such as storms or floods. Climate change threats include the increased variability of monsoons, the impact of retreating Himalayan glaciers on the Indus River system, decreased capacity of water reservoirs and hydropower during drought years, and extreme events including floods and droughts.
Dr Ali recommends moving away from engineering solutions like new dams and exclusive projects like the Ravi Waterfront City project. Described as the “world’s largest riverfront modern city”, and supported by Imran Khan’s government, it has attracted $8 billion in foreign investment and is facing opposition by farmers and residents who will be displaced from the project site, next to the megacity of Lahore, in addition to concerns about its environmental impact. Instead, he calls for conservation-oriented and equitable approaches to water management that prioritise water security, with efforts to invest in drinking water services and ensure small farmers have access to irrigation.