FeaturedNationalVolume 13 Issue # 22

Drought: An existential threat

According to media reports, drought-like conditions have hit most parts of the country, affecting Kharif crops. The Pakistan Meteorological Department has said  that due to deficient rainfall, drought like conditions have emerged over most parts of Pakistan, specially in barani areas of Punjab, lower KP, south Punjab, southwest Balochistan and southeast Sindh. This dry condition has caused water stress in the agriculture areas of the country that demands availability of more supplementary irrigation water for Kharif crops. According to PMD, the months of January – March received below normal rainfall whereas April – May witnessed negative 9.9pc.

The Department has reported extraordinary dry conditions in southern parts of the country during the past five months and called for “an immediate water management strategy (by all the stakeholders) to avoid negative impacts of deficit rainfall on water and agriculture”. This year, our river inflows have been at an all-time low due to lower-than-normal precipitation in the catchment areas triggered by climate change. In recent meetings, the Indus River System Authority has pointed out acute water shortage in the Indus basin river system. Irrigation supplies for winter crops in Punjab were 40 per cent lower than historical averages. More than 90pc of our fresh water is used in agriculture and 60pc of our population is directly or indirectly associated with agriculture. Demand for drinking water in cities is growing rapidly. Many parts of Karachi are already experiencing a Cape Town-like Day Zero.

Pakistan is inching towards a serious water crisis as per capita water availability is falling due to diminishing freshwater supplies and the burgeoning population. The challenges are two-fold: decreasing river inflows and reckless water management. The Falkenmark Water Stress Indicator sets 1,000 cubic metres per capita as the threshold where water shortage starts hurting economic growth and human health. Pakistan began in 1947 with 5,650 cubic metre per capita fresh water annually, way above this threshold. A water management expert associated with the Punjab Irrigation Department recently said that our annual water availability was 1,000 cubic metre per person and the situation was worsening day by day.

The tale of our ineptitude continues. Lack of ample reservoirs to store monsoon inflows and dry winters put extra pressure on our aquifer. Our farmers and our urban water supply facilities pump huge amounts of precious groundwater. In Punjab alone, there are some 1.2m tube wells performing agricultural, urban and industrial water supply duties. We are pumping far more than we are putting back into the aquifer. Experts say Pakistan has around 3 MAF to 4 MAF shortfall of groundwater discharge annually, and our aquifer is receding at an alarming rate. Rainwater harvesting and partially treated sewage lagoons for groundwater recharge are two available solutions but we are light years away from adopting these on a large scale.

Our agriculture sector’s affinity for flood irrigation is costing us dearly too. Not only are we wasting fresh water by adopting archaic irrigation methods, we are also registering the lowest per acre crop yields regionally. In the period after signing the Indus Waters Treaty, river inflows have dwindled whereas population growth has continued unabated. The 2017 census data changes the water availability equation altogether putting our annual per capita fresh water at around 850 cubic metres, This new metric places us in seriously water-scarce countries’ basket.

There is another dimension to the problem. Our diminishing river inflows is also attributable to the increasing number of dams our upstream neighbour continues to build on our rivers as well as lower-than-normal precipitation in the catchment areas because of climate change in recent years.

Successive governments in Pakistan have shown criminal disregard for managing our water resources — surface and ground — efficiently. In the last six decades, Pakistan hasn’t built a single major water reservoir. Wapda sources claim that Pakistan fritters away water worth Rs25 billion every year. Tarbela, one of the two existing reservoirs, has lost its storage capacity by over three million acre feet due to silt buildup. Our failure to build any new reservoirs after its construction in the mid ’70s shows our short-sightedness and ineptitude. Out of the 145 MAF we receive annually, we store only 14 MAF.

According to Irsa figures, Pakistan has been discharging an average of 30 MAF annually into the ocean whereas the requisite environmental flow downstream of Kotri is less than 8 MAF. During the dry winter season, our irrigation system relies solely on water stored in the Tarbela and Mangla dams. This year both have been at dead level throughout the spring season, so the tail reaches of the Indus basin irrigation system have not had any significant supplies.

We need to take swift action to tackle the water emergency. A national water policy has been formally approved and it should be speedily implemented. Our national and provincial water management bodies, local government bodies and public health and irrigation departments must commit themselves to implementing efficient water resource management. The provinces should agree on building new water storages.

Water experts say that given the way our population is swelling we need a Tarbela-size reservoir every decade. Along with water policies we also need federal and provincial water commissions to monitor efficient water resource management at all levels. They say water is life. For Pakistan it is a question of survival.