For the last almost two decades, depleting water resources have set alarm bells ringing for authorities as well as the public in Pakistan. The freshwater sources are drying up fast and it is feared the country may face an acute water crisis in 2025. The quantity of water for all sectors – drinking, power generation and agriculture ‑ is reducing, but regrettably no solid corrective measures are being taken.
Water experts believe Pakistan must frame a rational, politically unbiased and holistic water policy to avoid a serious crisis in the years to come. They believe the major issue is not just the unavailability of water but the mismanagement of water resources. Currently, 97% of freshwater in the country is used in the agriculture sector, which makes up 18% of its GDP. Bad agriculture choices, flood irrigation, a lack of hybrid seeding and poor water management are putting a heavy burden on water resources.
Masood Ahmed, a water specialist for World Bank projects in Pakistan, says there are several issues with water management, including a lack of basin-wise water resource management and no proper system to stop evaporation and pilferage (40% of water is lost). Pakistan also faces the challenges of 13% of the cultivable land being saline and 30% of agricultural land being waterlogged, he tells Cutting Edge. Every year, the water crisis worsens in winter, but efforts to find solutions do not match the gigantic issue. This year again, the country experienced water shortages, especially for power generation and irrigation. Agronomists say red chilli, cotton and rice crops in Punjab and Sindh suffered the most this year due to canal water shortages.
Masood Ahmed says unequal access and distribution, a growing population, urbanisation, progressive industrialisation, lack of storage capacity and climate risks make water management a difficult task in Pakistan. Climate change has been causing shifts in the weather pattern in different parts of the country, which requires area-specific solutions, not a generic policy. Since the 1980s, the domestic water supply and irrigation management have become more participatory and privatised with a focus on physical targets rather than on capacity building, he says.
The water expert says Pakistan can only store 10% of the average annual flow of its rivers, which is far below the world average storage capacity of 40%. He regrets the country’s first National Water Policy announced in 2018 does not pay enough attention to water sensitive urban designs, risk management against natural hazards and trade in water-intensive crops. Any policy to address these challenges should include customised, location-specific solutions which can deal with the topographical, source water body, receiving water body and socioeconomic context of the setting.
Masood Ahmed says water storages and management should be the focus of the government along with transparent assessments undertaken in every province about water inflow and outflow. He appreciates a water storage project launched in the drought-hit Tharparkar region of Sindh.
Referring to a study conducted and published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, he says the provincial government project is helping farmers harvest rainwater using small dams. The scheme boosts sustainability and enables the farmers to earn more from their land, increasing their incomes by more than 60%. He says that captured rainwater makes up less than 20% of water used by the farmers, with most coming from the ground.
A paper published in 2020 by a group of agricultural and environmental researchers says the new rainwater harvesting dams will not only provide farmers with a reliable water supply but also help recharge groundwater levels, as some of water from the dams sinks into the earth.
Murtaza Wahab, environment adviser to the chief minister of Sindh, tells Cutting Edge by telephone that the provincial government has built 60 small rainwater-fed dams, each with an average storage capacity of 100,000 gallons, in the remote drought-hit areas of Nagarparkar and Kohistan during the past six years. He says at least 23 more small dams will be built in the next three years.
He says that in Tharparkar the average annual rainfall can be as low as 9mm and the area frequently faces drought. The adviser says the small dams have been a boon to the farmers, noting that last year Nagarparkar’s onion farmers reported a total yield worth Rs600 million, a record for the province. “The dams have a long-term benefit for the local population, because when abundant water is available in these water-scarce areas, people will bring more barren land under cultivation and the number of their livestock would start increasing,” he believes.
Ghazala Channar, deputy chief of water resources in the Ministry of Planning, says Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are already working to build small dams. The federal government allocated Rs20.4 billion to build more than 500 small dams across the country last year, she says. The new reservoirs will help mitigate floods, ease poverty and develop agriculture, as well as increase the water table and provide clean drinking water.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation report, however, says that small dams are not a silver bullet for arid parts of the country. It says that using small dams to recharge groundwater supplies only works in freshwater zones. The rainwater caught by the dams is not much use in topping up the water table in areas like Sindh, where 80% of the underground water supply is saline, the report explains. It suggests that the provincial and federal governments in Pakistan stop subsidising the electricity commercial farms use to run large tube-wells, which are a major cause of depleting underground water levels.
The authorities also need to help farmers adapt to the water supply they have now, it says, adding that those in drought-prone areas should learn to grow less thirsty crops. The cultivation of rice and sugarcane, which need more water, should be discouraged in Sindh and Punjab regions, it suggests.