FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 33

Water scarcity: An existential threat

Growing water shortage poses an existential threat to Pakistan. As the population is increasing, per capita water availability is diminishing. Per capita water availability in Pakistan was over 5,000 m3 in 1950. However, in 1990, Pakistan touched the stress line and in 2005 it had surpassed the line. According to a World Bank report, Pakistan’s per capita freshwater availability has fallen below the water scarcity threshold (1,000 cubic meters) and is predicted to go down to approximately 600-800 cubic meter in 2025.

Water insecurity in Pakistan is marked by poor water resource management, inadequate irrigation and municipal water services, a lack of additional domestic water supply and sanitation, and other essential long-term and cross-sectoral risks. Depleting water resources is more a cause of concern for farmers than other sectors of the economy as this shrinking resource may result in decreased per acre yield of different crops.

Absence of sufficient water storages, rising temperature and rampant wastage of irrigation water is further worsening the situation which may badly affect the agriculture sector diminishing per acre yield of our most essential crops like wheat, maize, sugarcane, rice and fruits and vegetables leading the country to food security issues.

We have only 30 days water storage capacity as compared to 130 storage capacity in India, 700 days in Egypt and 900 days in the United States. It means that if India can survive for 130 days with its available storage capacity, Egypt for 700 days and the United States for 900 days, Pakistan can survive only for 20 days. Experts say that we should have at least 120 days of storage capacity.

Around 200 million acre feet of ground and surface water is available in our system. As our main resource runs through rivers and canals, its valuable portion goes waste due to improper water coursing. The water sector has its shortcomings in terms of the inadequacy of legal framework, policy framework and policy implementation. What is needed is a national and provincial-level policy framework and a robust implementation plan to enhance the access to fresh water in rural and urban areas.

Storing more water is essential to combat the water crisis. A national conservation plan and irrigation system must be developed to consider water release, storage, and rehabilitation in the dry season. In addition, there is great potential for small and medium-sized dams to improve the lives of and upgrade the infrastructure of existing storage sites.

Most importantly, to deal with the water scarcity issue in Pakistan, adopting new technologies is urgently required, including wastewater treatment and the reuse of water. A “drip and sprinkler” irrigation technique to meet agricultural needs and combat water wastage ratio, which is alarmingly high at 45% is one of the suggested solutions.

The ‘Global Food Policy Report 2022’, released by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), has cautioned that water scarcity in Pakistan is projected to worsen with climate change. Himalayan glaciers, an important source of rivers in South Asia, have lost more mass since 2000 than in the entire twentieth century.

Climate change presents immediate and long-term challenges for South Asia such as glacier melt, sea-level rise, groundwater depletion, extreme weather events, and frequency of natural hazards that are likely to worsen in coming decades. The report warns that South Asia’s pre-existing vulnerabilities — high levels of poverty, governance challenges, and limited access to basic services and resources — amplify the region’s climate risks, with potentially devastating effects if warming continues at this pace.

The unprecedented scale of climatic changes has also caused crop yield decline and production losses. Pakistan is slowly running dry, and heat waves are rapidly intensifying. Experts say that degradation of natural resources, soil erosion, deforestation, unbridled and unplanned urbanization, and contamination of groundwater are some of the many serious issues that need immediate attention from the government.

Every year Pakistan loses almost 27,000 hectares of natural forest area, because almost three-quarters of the country’s population uses forest resources for lack of alternative energy resources. Pakistan must have at least 25% of the forest cover. The government is not preventing the cutting down of trees, which is happening on a massive scale.

All this is taking a huge toll on the economy. According to a report by Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, the annual monetary cost of environmental degradation alone is equivalent to around 4.3% of GDP. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest report in August 2021, on the heels of one of the hottest and most devastating summers on record: floods in northern Europe and China, wildfires in the US, and heatwaves everywhere. The report tells us that the consequences of the current global warming crisis are largely irreversible. The most we can do is to prevent all-out ecological collapse.

Today, Pakistan is facing an existential crisis. We must deal with the problem on a war-footing. There is no time to lose. The government must formulate long-term policies to conserve and store water so that sufficient supplies are available for agriculture and other needs. If required, a water emergency should be declared to tackle the looming crisis.