FeaturedNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 13

Pakistan’s ailing water sector

From the very beginning, water resources in Pakistan have been badly managed. The country has one of the best and largest irrigation systems in the world but over the years per capita water availability has steadily gone down and now stands at almost 1,000 cubic meters. Various international surveys show that our food security is at risk because much of our food comes from irrigated agriculture. But agriculture is under severe stress to meet the food demand of our fast-growing population.

Pakistan is now in the category of water scarce countries – a fact which has a direct bearing on food security. We have a population of almost 208 million to feed. Agriculture accounts for 19.3pc of the country’s GDP and is by far the largest user of water. Almost 90pc of the available water, including both surface and groundwater, is used in agriculture for irrigation. But water is getting scarcer with each passing year.

The situation that we face today is a result of multiple factors: mismanagement of water resources, inadequate storage facilities, low water use efficiency (WUE), water wastage, inappropriate cropping pattern and outdated water pricing mechanism. It is alarming to know that Pakistan has one of the lowest per capita water storage capacities in the world. The country has per capita water storage capacity of 121 cubic meters which is equal to that of Ethiopia. By contrast, the USA and China have per capita storage of over 2,000 cubic meters. The capacity of our major national reservoirs caters for only 10pc of annual inflow, against the world average of 40pc. As of now, our water storage capacity has decreased to less than 30 days against the minimum requirement of 120 days. The situation underlines the urgency of building multipurpose dams in the country to deal with the problems of floods, droughts and store excess water from melting glaciers and run-off from monsoon.

We callously misuse and waste our scarce water resources. According to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, Pakistan has one of the lowest water use efficiency (WUE) when it comes to a crop yield per hectare. In case of wheat, it stands at 0.5kg/cubic meter as compared with 1kg/cubic meter in India. Similarly, Pakistan gets 2.5 tons/hectares wheat against India’s average of 3.5 tons/hectares despite having similar climate and land characteristics. Experts say that with better management, WUE can be improved by at least 25pc.

Pakistan has one of the largest irrigation networks in the world, covering over 17 million hectares and registering losses of over 60pc of irrigation water. Water courses, flood irrigation systems, canals, and distributary channels are some of the major channels that cause most water losses. The percentage of non-revenue water (NRW), for which no price is charged, is around 45-50 as compared to the world’s average of 10-15.

Clearly, we need to develop new techniques for better management of available water. To this end, it is important to improve water courses to minimise seepages, leakages and other losses. Simultaneously, we need to adopt the latest sowing methods, such as bed-plantation and Direct Seeded Rice (DSR) which minimise the consumption of water. Other water saving techniques include raised beds, drip irrigation and rain guns. In recent years, the Punjab agriculture department has provided subsidies worth billions of rupees to encourage installation of the drip system to hundreds of thousands of farmers, but the initiative has not made much headway.

The time has come to discourage the sowing of water guzzling crops. Rice and sugarcane top the water consumption chart. It takes an unbelievably high quantity of 3,000 liters and 1,500 liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice and sugar, respectively. Ironically, they are being cultivated on more and more land. This large scale shifting to rice, even in the areas where groundwater resources are already under stress, is causing the loss of groundwater reservoirs at an alarming rate. Coordinated and persistent efforts are needed to discipline the unchecked growth of water consuming crops. First, we should map areas which have enough water to support the cultivation of such crops. Secondly, water consuming crops should be replaced with edible oil crops that need one tenth of the water needed by rice and sugarcane. Local production of edible oil will reduce our import bill and save billions of rupees.

Another urgent need is to build the capacity of the federal and provincial institutions responsible for water data management. This is important as they perform complex and interdependent functions of modelling, forecasting, water monitoring, distribution and use. At the same time, steps are needed to frame an implementation framework for the National Water Policy that proposes the establishment of a National Water Council which can take a holistic view of the multifarious problems afflicting the water sector and evolve short and long-term solutions.