A recent seminar on ‘Water trends, challenges and sustainable strategy for its security’ held at the US-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water (USPCAS-W, at Mehran University of Engineering and Technology - MUET) brought together in Jamshoro, Pakistan, multiple government and non-profit actors to discuss at length the water crisis in the country, reported the Pakistan Daily Times.
Nisar Memon, politician and former federal minister, Chairman of the Water Environment Forum, a Pakistani non-profit, warned the audience about the decline of resources in the Indus river system, the lifeline of Pakistan’s economy, due to poor management. Meanwhile, Professor Muhammad Aslam Uqaili, from MUET, pointed to issues with the implementation of laws and policies, as well as water governance, as a key problem.
Pakistan ranks 14 in WRI’s list of countries with extremely high baseline water stress, where water withdrawal accounts for more than 80% of the available supply on average every year. The narrow gap between supply and demand means the country is vulnerable to fluctuations like droughts or increased water withdrawals. Countries with high water stress can secure their water supplies, though, through proper management.
Farid Alam, Program Director at the Asia Foundation, identified population growth and climate change as factors leading to decreasing water availability. According to a 2019 report by Pakistan’s Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), four different water availability indicators widely used indicate that Pakistan is now a water scarce country and is fast approaching absolute water scarcity. Currently water availability is below the scarcity level of 1000 m3/person and climatic changes in the region may further worsen the situation, touching the absolute water scarcity line (below 500 m3/person according to the Falkenmark indicator1) by 2025.
Researcher Arif Anwar, from Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute highlighted the need to allocate water resources rationally for agriculture, industry and services to allow economic growth. The agriculture sector is the biggest water user in Pakistan (more than 90%), and provides livelihoods to 62% of the population, according to the PCRWR’s report. About 90% of the food production in Pakistan comes from irrigated agriculture.
Groundwater depletion is a major concern in the country. Pakistan’s groundwater supplies provide more than 60% of the irrigation water and more than 90% of the drinking water, as well as almost 100% of the water used in industry, as per the PCRWR’s report. Groundwater provides resilience against drought and climate change. However, it is freely accessible; with no regulatory framework, anyone can install a tube well and pump any amount of water. USPCAS-W Project Director Dr Bakhshal Lashari informed that by now, some 1.3 million tube wells have been installed in the country (up from 0.2 million 25 years ago). Excess groundwater withdrawal has led to depletion and salinization. Moreover, a 2015 NASA-led study confirmed that the Indus Basin aquifer is among the most overstressed and rapidly depleting groundwater systems in the world.
Dr Lashari also pointed to transboundary water disputes with India affecting regional water scarcity. Pakistan claims the dam on the Kishan Ganga (Neelum River) violates the Indus Waters Treaty on water distribution between both countries. Something similar happened with the Baghliar dam on the Chenab River.
In 2007, South Asia scholar Anatol Lieven warned that water shortages posed ‘the greatest threat to the viability of Pakistan as a state and a society’. Although it may have seemed an overstatement, time could prove him right.
- Falkenmark, M., J. Lundquist and C. Widstrand (1989), “Macro-scale Water Scarcity Requires Micro-scale Approaches: Aspects of Vulnerability in Semi-arid Development”, Natural Resources Forum, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 258-267.