NationalVolume 12 Issue # 24

The looming crisis

The WAPDA chairman recently told the Public Accounts Committee that about Rs25 billion worth of water is wasted every year. Experts say that the actual worth of water lost every year is much more. According to available figures, only about 10 percent of the available 145 million acre feet (maf) of water can be stored in existing reservoirs as compared to the global average of around 40 percent.

It is estimated that that over 30 maf water flows down to the sea every year. If we put down 10 maf to ecological need, the remaining 20 maf is colossal waste. The economic value of water is calculated at $2 billion per maf. This means that we waste $40 billion worth of water every year.

Such staggering loss of water is leading to a situation of extreme water shortage. Local and international water experts have repeatedly warned that Pakistan will face a major water crisis in the next 10-20 years. Some of the experts have pointed out that the Himalayan glaciers, contributing over 80 percent water to the Indus river that feeds more than 65 percent of the country’s agriculture, are receding at a rate of 30-50 meters per annum.

Pakistan has already been declared a “water-stressed” country and the Asian Development Bank in its 2013 Outlook report classified the country on the verge of being “water scarce”. The country is said to be lingering just above the scarcity limit of 1,000 cubic meters per capita and the next few decades may see this figure falling by half. According to the ADB report, Pakistan has a water storage capacity of only 30 days as against the recommended 1,000 days needed for a country like Pakistan with its special climatic conditions. Experts say that the impending water crisis is more serious for Pakistan than other crises and poses an existential threat to the country whose economy is based on agriculture.

A report titled Understanding Pakistan’s water-security nexus issued by the US Institute of Peace a couple of years back forecast that “because of overuse and misuse, Pakistan is headed toward a serious water crisis. The UN is expected to downgrade Pakistan from a ‘water stressed’ to ‘water scarce’ country by 2030. While issues between India and Pakistan often draw attention, water conflicts within Pakistan’s borders have the explosive potential to poison inter-ethnic and inter-provincial relations and turn simmering tension into violence. In a country where livelihoods depend heavily on reliable access to water, effectively managing water resources can transform a common lightning rod for conflict into an opportunity for building intra-communal cooperation and trust.”

Per capita annual water availability in Pakistan has dwindled from 5,600 cubic metres at independence to the current level of 1,017 cubic metres and is projected to decline further under the current infrastructure and institutional conditions. The demand for water is projected to reach 274 million acre-feet (MAF) by 2025, while the supply is expected to remain stagnant at 191 MAF, resulting in a demand-supply gap of approximately 83 MAF. This will create a serious shortage of water for agriculture and other needs. The World Bank and Earth Policy Institute have in their various reports said that Pakistan would face a “water disaster” in the next 30-40 years owing to unusually fast depletion of the Himalayan glaciers, low storage capacity and other related uncertainties.

There are several factors contributing to the problem of rising water shortage, like climatic changes and population explosion. According to experts, a solution to the problem lies in proper water management i.e. conserving the existing resources. But, sadly, the government has not yet taken up the water issue seriously, nor is there any planning to tackle it on short and long term basis. The water issue has been politicized in Pakistan and that is the reason why it seems next to impossible that it will be resolved in the near future. No serious effort is being made to remove the mistrust between the largest province Punjab and the smaller federating units over the distribution of water and proposed sites for new dams, particularly Kalabagh dam, due to which this issue has been lingering on for decades. Construction of new dams and water reservoirs has become more important in the wake of decreasing storage capacity of the existing three dams. The storage capacity of these dams has declined by 24 percent from 16 million acre feet to 13 million acre feet and it is estimated that it would go down by 50 percent in the next 20 years.

There is an obvious need for Pakistan to increase water storage capacity to manage low snowmelt and low rainfall, as well as the rehabilitation of the distribution system to reduce losses but no serious effort has been made to address these issues. The country has also failed to build a single dam for more than three decades due to political bickering. According to experts, there are a number of ways to pre-empt the emerging crisis. The general public needs to be educated about the conservation of water. Secondly, it is necessary to build extra reservoirs where people can save rain and floodwater for later use. During the monsoons, we get enough rain which sometimes turns into floods, destroying homes and hearths, crops and cattle. We have to find ways to harness rainwater and retain it for later use.

The Indus River System Authority (Irsa) recently issued a warning, asking the government to freeze the country’s entire development programme for the next five years and divert these funds to the construction of major water reservoirs on war footing. Irsa has emphasized that at the very minimum a capacity for 22 million acre feet (MAF) of water should be developed at the earliest. As agriculture is the backbone of the country’s economy, reservoirs should be constructed on all feasible sites to store this excess capacity. The total water availability in the country is 145 MAF, while the existing storage capacity is only 14.10 MAF. If Pakistan had increased its storage capacity over the past few decades there would been less devastation from floods and the water stored during the rainy season could have been used in case of drought.

Only two large dams have been built since the country’s inception. Over time the storage capacity of existing dams has also eroded. As of 2015, storage capacity at Tarbela Dam and Mangla Dam had eroded by 34 percent and 10 percent, respectively, due to reservoir sedimentation. Benefits of building larger dams go beyond saving a few extra maf’s of water. Large dams can be used to produce hydroelectricity, which is a cheap and clean source of power. In a flood-exposed country like Pakistan, dams in strategic areas can also help in flood mitigation. Besides, the country can save some rainwater, too, which currently goes to waste.