Water is essential for life, yet Pakistan is on the brink of running dry. Both the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) have warned that Pakistan will become absolutely water scarce by 2025, if nothing changes. We are now only five years away from this terrifying situation. Pakistan could very well be heading towards a Mad Max-esque reality where the desperate struggle for water leads to violence and bloodshed. In fact, the citizens of Karachi can probably already claim to be living that reality as many of them must source their own, exorbitantly priced, water through water mafias due to the shortage in city.
Pakistan has the fourth highest rate of water use in the world. And, the water intensity rate— the amount of water used, in cubic metres, per unit of GDP— is the highest in the world, meaning there is no other country whose economy is as water intensive as Pakistan’s.
The primary factors behind the water crisis are: inefficient agricultural use, decaying infrastructure, inadequate storage facilities, population growth and climate change. Pakistan has the fourth highest rate of water use in the world. And, the water intensity rate— the amount of water used, in cubic metres, per unit of GDP— is the highest in the world, meaning there is no other country whose economy is as water intensive as Pakistan’s.
However, vast quantities of that water is wasted in the agricultural process. Pakistan has an expansive irrigation system but it is old and in dire need of repair. Due to the system’s state of disrepair a lot of water is lost to seepage. This water loss is further compounded by the inefficient farming techniques still in use. Pakistan mainly grows water-intensive crops like cotton, sugarcane, rice and wheat and uses flood irrigation for that process. Not only does flood irrigation waste a lot of water, the mechanisms used for this technique like tube-wells put considerable strain on the groundwater supply. For instance, water is extracted by tube-wells in order to flood rice paddies and this lowers the groundwater table. Unchecked groundwater extraction has led to the Indus Basin Aquifer becoming the second most stressed in the world, after the Arabian Aquifer which is located in a literal desert. If Pakistan wants to avoid becoming a drought stricken wasteland then it needs to make its agricultural water use more efficient and sustainable. Repairing and adding to irrigation infrastructure could be the first step in this process. Followed by having the farming community transition to more efficient irrigation methods like drip farming, furrow irrigation and limiting the growth of high water consuming crops to areas with the most rainfall.
Water wastage in Pakistan also occurs from an avenue that few would ever think of, and that its unchecked use by the general public. The nation crossed the line from being water stressed to water scare in 2005, as the amount of water available per person has dropped below 1000 cubic metres. People in Pakistan are charged very little for domestic use or otherwise. The only exception to this is the city of Karachi, where citizens are forced to pay exorbitantly for access to clean water by water mafias in the city— there is a severe shortage of clean, running water in Karachi, hence the public is forced to source their own water through water mafias that themselves steal from the government’s pipes (with the involvement of corrupt municipal boards). The general water bill of a household in Pakistan will be just a few hundred rupees. Even the Abiana (water price for agricultural use) is minimal. It is Rs. 135 per acre, with Rs. 85 for khairf (summer) crops and Rs. 50 for rabi (winter) crops. These rates do not reflect the true price of water, which has now become a scarce resource in Pakistan. Interestingly, water is the only commodity that Pakistani people are not charged the actual cost of, despite it being the most scarce. This likely because it is not something that has to be produced, and for now flows freely hence it is easily overlooked unlike Pakistan’s electricity crisis. Pakistan needs to introduce metered water usage, where people are charged for crossing certain water usage thresholds. At present water use in unmetered so people don’t pay according to their actual usage. Although, a measure like this will probably not be instituted by any government because it will prove to be severely unpopular in a poor country like Pakistan where other utility bills are already quite high.
If Pakistan doesn’t want to become some dystopian realm where water becomes a rare and prized resource only for the rich and powerful it must act now.
One thing that the government can do, which won’t encounter public resistance, is build more storage facilities. However, it will require tremendous political will as the public might be not be a roadblock but provincial authorities certainly will be. There need to be more dams in order to store water. Pakistan currently only has a water storage capacity of 30 days, thus it is unable to capture water worth, approximately, $21 billion that just flows into the sea. The average storage capacity of water is 40% for most other countries, India for example has a capacity of a 170 days, whereas Pakistan’s capacity is just 10%. Long stalled projects like the Kalabagh dam need to be completed posthaste if Pakistan wants to avoid a water crisis. There needs to be awareness created about the looming threat of water scarcity so a national consensus on water policy can be developed. Provinces that are holding out on the construction of the Kalabagh dam need to be brought to the table and taken on board so that the dam can finally be built.
Pakistan has been hard hit by climate change, which has made monsoon rains unpredictable and also accelerated the melting of its glaciers. In order to counter the negative effects these changes the country needs to prevent further deforestation. If Pakistan can successfully reforest large tracts of the country it will mitigate the most severe effects of climate change and help prevent further melting of the glaciers that feed its rivers and basin.
In sum, Pakistan needs to urgently address its water scarcity problem. The country is on the precipice of a cliff and once it becomes absolutely water scarce it will be incredibly difficult to recover from that. If Pakistan doesn’t want to become some dystopian realm where water becomes a rare and prized resource only for the rich and powerful it must act now.