NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 18

Pakistan’s water crisis: challenges, solutions, and initiatives

Pakistan finds itself grappling with a complex water situation characterized by contradictions and a lack of effective management. Despite being on the brink of being declared a water-scarce nation, the country witnesses vast amounts of rainwater going to waste after destructive monsoon showers. Water scarcity warnings issued by international organizations highlight the urgent need for corrective measures to prevent the loss of freshwater resources. With dwindling surface water availability and unsustainable groundwater extraction, Pakistan’s water crisis demands immediate attention and efficient utilization of resources.

The water situation appears riddled with contradictions and a lack of capacity on the part of authorities to secure and utilize its natural resources effectively. The country is rapidly approaching the status of a water-scarce nation from its current water-stressed condition. Paradoxically, a substantial amount of rainwater is wasted each year after heavy monsoon showers wreak havoc on both urban and rural areas. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) have separately issued warnings about water scarcity in the country. Pakistan has been clearly informed that it will lose its freshwater resources within four years, by 2025, if corrective measures are not taken soon.

Official data reveals that the per capita surface water availability, which was 5,260 cubic meters per year in 1951, has dwindled to approximately 1,000 cubic meters in 2016 and is projected to further decline to about 860 cubic meters by 2025. The PCRWR states that Pakistan crossed the “water stress line” in 1990 and surpassed the “water scarcity line” in 2005.

According to officials from the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, the Indus river system receives an annual influx of approximately 134.8 million acre-feet (MAF) of water. The mean annual rainfall ranges from less than 100 millimeters to over 750 millimeters. Surface water consists of glacial melt (41%), snowmelt (22%), and rainfall (27%). Water experts believe that this volume of water should meet the country’s freshwater needs if it is utilized judiciously and efficiently.

However, concerning groundwater, Pakistan is currently extracting 50 MAF from underground aquifers, surpassing the sustainable limit of safe yield. Syed M Abubakar, an environmental journalist, explains that Pakistan’s water issues primarily revolve around quality and quantity. The water entering our systems has not changed significantly over the past decades, but the demand has skyrocketed due to a rapid population increase. Abubakar believes that the existing reservoirs’ storage capacity cannot sustain the population boom, and their capacity has diminished over the years.

The recent census results indicate that the country’s population has reached 207.7 million and is projected to exceed 395 million by its 100th anniversary in 2047. With this rapid population growth, the demand for water will increase exponentially. According to an IMF report, water demand in Pakistan is on the rise and expected to reach 274 million acre-feet (MAF) by 2025, while the supply is projected to remain stagnant at 191 MAF, resulting in an approximate 83 MAF demand-supply gap.

A report released by the PCRWR last year stated that Lahore’s population of over 11 million is supplied with 1.29 MAF of groundwater daily, extracted through hand-pumps, motor pumps, and tube wells. In 1960, there were around 20,000 tube wells in Punjab, but water experts now estimate the number to be over a million. WWF-Pakistan’s recent report highlights critical levels of groundwater depletion in Lahore, occurring at a rate of approximately 2.5 to 3.0 feet per year. The water table in the central part of the city has dropped below 130 feet, and in the Gulberg area, it has fallen below 147 feet. If groundwater is not conserved and the current extraction trend continues, it is projected to recede below 230 feet in most areas by 2025.

Khalid Mohtadullah, a civil engineer and water resources policy expert, asserts that many water scarcity problems can be resolved by investing in water conservation through the construction of storage facilities at all levels. Mohtadullah laments that Pakistan is currently storing less than 8% of the available surface water flows. Even after accounting for the environmental flow requirements of the river system, a significant portion of the surplus flow is allowed to go to the sea unused. He believes that Pakistan should be storing around 40% of the surface water flows to establish a sustainable irrigation system. Due to the highly uneven water availability in the country’s rivers throughout the year, the lack of sufficient storage at all levels makes it nearly impossible to manage water resources effectively.


Mohtadullah suggests that in the event the lower riparian region raises concerns about the dying delta when 75 to 80% of the water is available in just three months of the year, and only a trickle remains in the remaining nine months, the principle of “every drop stored is a drop saved” can help preserve the delta and prevent seawater intrusion. The stored water can be released consistently throughout the year or as needed, following principles of equity and good water management.

In a positive development, the Punjab government launched an initiative that brought relief to the people of Lahore. The Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) installed the city’s first rainwater storage system. For the pilot project on Lawrence Road, an underground concrete tank was installed in the nearby Bagh-e-Jinnah park. New drains were constructed in the surrounding roads to channel water into the storage tank.

The system has the capacity to store 6.4 million liters of water, which will be used to water the park and its surroundings. The project covers a catchment area of over 25 acres, which is home to around 30,000 people and used by more than 40,000 motorists daily. The initiative, costing Rs150 million, is estimated to save Rs23 million every year in flood damage, according to a WASA official. Lahore receives around 600mm of rainfall annually, and rainwater harvesting has the potential to address the city’s depleting water resources.

Experts emphasize that rainwater harvesting is crucial for establishing a systematic response to urban floods each year, and with innovative approaches, it can transform a crisis into an opportunity to utilize water resources and replenish depleted groundwater aquifers. An official mentioned that the experience gained from the Lahore pilot project has been very positive, leading to plans for an additional 25 sites with rainwater collection tanks at low-lying areas throughout the city.