It is now an established fact that Pakistan is faced with a serious water crisis. Pakistan is a water scarce country where per capita water availability has dropped to almost 1,000 cubic meters. This has put our food security at risk. We must remember that we have a population of over 20o million to feed and for adequate food production we need a sufficient supply of water.
Agriculture accounts for 19.3% of the country’s GDP and is by far the largest user of water. Almost 90% of the available water, including both surface and groundwater, is used in agriculture for irrigation. Pakistan has one of the best and largest irrigation systems in the world. But agriculture is under stress to meet the food demand of the fast-growing Pakistani population.
The depletion of water resources is a result of multiple complex factors: mismanagement of water resources, inadequate storage facilities, low water use efficiency, water wastage, inappropriate cropping patterns and outdated water pricing mechanism. Much of the water we get from annual rainfall is wasted. The reason is that we have 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 comparable to some African countries. It may be added here that the US and China have per capita storage of over 2,000 cubic meters. Even India, despite being seven times more populous than us, has per capita storage capacity of over 200 cubic meters. The storage capacity of our major national reservoirs preserves only 10% of annual inflow, against the world average of 40%. Over the years, the water storage capacity has decreased to less than 30 days against the minimum requirement of 120 days.
Pakistan has one of the largest irrigation networks in the world, covering over 17 million hectares. According to an estimate, over 60% of all irrigation water is lost. Water courses, flood irrigation system, unlined canal and distributary channels cause most water losses. The percentage of non-revenue water, for which no price is charged, is around 45-50% as compared to the world’s average of 10-15%.
The water problem in the country is complicated by disagreements over the distribution of water among the federating units. Experts recommend that the capacity of the federal and provincial institutions responsible for water data management should be improved. They perform complex and interdependent functions of modelling, forecasting, water monitoring, distribution and use. Therefore, measures should be taken to improve the provincial level regulatory frameworks for access of groundwater and its management and regulation.
What is the solution to the water challenge? Among other things, we must launch a national campaign to save water. To this end, we need to build multipurpose dams in the country so that we can withstand the floods, droughts and store excess water from melting glaciers and runoff from monsoon. Simultaneously, we need to upgrade the existing reservoirs. Water courses should be improved to minimize seepages, leakages and other losses. Water saving techniques such as raised beds, drip irrigation and rain guns should be encouraged. The Punjab agriculture department has provided subsidies worth billions of rupees on installation of drip system on a shared basis to hundreds of thousands of farmers, however, its use is still seen as an exception rather than rule.
As per a study by 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 compared with 1kg/cubic meter in India. Similarly, Pakistan gets 2.5 tons/hectares of wheat against India’s average of 3.5 tons/hectares despite having similar climate and land characteristics. The water use efficiency should be improved by at least 25%.
The state agencies responsible for water management have limited knowledge about the current best practices. We need to improve the capacity of the institutions that are responsible for recording, monitoring and analysis of groundwater data. We need to reform the irrigation tariffs according to the realistic operational and maintenance costs. We should employ advanced data techniques to record the actual consumption. It would enable us to charge a consumer in proportion to their actual consumption which will lead to better water conservation.
We have witnessed mushroom growth of tube-wells across the country that are a major cause of groundwater depletion. Nearly 65% of the water used for irrigation purposes is pumped through tube-wells. A policy should be devised to regulate the installation and operation of tube-wells for minimizing the excessive extraction of groundwater. Changing cropping patterns, water guzzling crops should be discouraged. Rice and sugarcane top the water consumption chart. It takes a high quantity of 3,000 liters and 1,500 liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice and sugar respectively. Instead, we should encourage and facilitate the cultivation of crops like oil seeds which consume minimal water.