NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 33

Water scarcity or mismanagement?

Pakistan is fast becoming water-scarce, though the issue is not primarily related to shortage of nature’s gift but mismanagement and lack of a strategy to conserve it. The country has witnessed a 400 per cent decrease in per capita water availability – from 5,600 cubic metres in 1947 to the current level of around 1,038 cubic metres in 2021, according to official data. Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world and water scarcity is a very serious threat, which will aggravate by 2025, leaving very limited water for use if no efficient water-use practices are adopted and special measures taken to conserve it.

The country’s water crisis is explained mainly by rapid population growth, followed by climate change (floods and droughts), poor agricultural sector water management, inefficient infrastructure and water pollution. This, in a result, is not only threatening drought-like conditions in the coming decades but also aggravating internal tensions among the provinces.

In the last week of June 2022, Senator Sherry Rehman, federal minister for Climate Change, said the whooping impacts of climate change were putting pressure on the country’s water resources that need to be conserved as it could cause drought in the country till 2025. Environmental degradation has become a crisis for the entire world and Pakistan has come on the forefront of an environmental crisis. The country is facing three crises of climate change, nature degradation and rising pollution simultaneously.

The minister said the country would have to protect its water resources, rivers, oceans, air and land from increasing pollution. Its rivers are not only an asset but a guarantee to its food, economy and ecology’s survival. Due to temperature rise, the country has also witnessed a glacial lake outburst flood at Shisper Glacier two weeks back, which set the alarm bells ringing for departments concerned. On one side, our glaciers are melting rapidly, and on the other our rivers are drying up.

In these circumstances, the country needs to adopt a policy to conserve water and harvest its maximum quantity in the monsoon season every year. The country receives 60% of the total rainwater from the monsoon rains. Most of the rainfall in Pakistan occurs in mountains followed by Pothohar and then the plain areas. The range of rainfall lies between 200 mm and 1,500mm per year, much of it in the short span of two months. This rainfall can not only be utilised to cater to the issue of water scarcity, but also decrease the chance of flooding of major urban cities. As the groundwater level is decreasing over the years, it may lead to dire consequences of desertification. The rainfall strode in small ponds can address the water recharge. Also, groundwater recharge can be made by various techniques such as rainwater harvesting at the household level in urban areas; developing ponds in our parks and farms; plugging our flood drains, and even diverting our river flows to facilitate artificial groundwater recharge.

A research, collaborated by the Climate Change Adaptation Project of the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature-Pakistan, suggested utilising rainwater, particularly in the arid zones like Kohistan, Thar, Thal, and Cholistan for agriculture and livestock purposes. Groundwater in arid areas is mostly saline, and therefore, cannot be used. Rainwater harvesting provides the best possible alternative and supplementary source of water in a situation where existing water sources are depleting and fail to fulfil the needs of a growing population.

Rida Anwar, a research assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research, says rainwater can be harvested in the country in small communities living in mountain ranges by following different techniques that can cater to both domestic and agricultural purposes. A cue in this regard can be taken from Tamil Nadu, which is a trendsetter in rainwater harvesting. The country made it mandatory for all buildings to make arrangements to harvest rainwater far back in 2003. Today, according to the Tamil Nadu government website, out of the 2.3.92 million buildings in town Panchayats (government, residential, commercial and industrial), 2.2.94 million have rainwater harvesting facilities.

Also, two years back, the country launched a special campaign for cleaning all water bodies and supply channels, and more small check dams were set up to store water near streams and bore-wells for drinking water. Defunct bore-wells were converted into water recharging ones through rainwater harvesting. And the good news for all concerned is that the country is successfully implementing its plans to harvest rainwater and conserve it for future generations.

In Pakistan also, the urban and rural areas have vast opportunities to conserve rainwater by constructing rain-harvesting infrastructure: by utilising dry ponds, canals, and low-lying areas. Thus, during heavy rainfalls, such as those in monsoon, when rivers and canals overflow, extra water could be preserved in specially constructed dams, reservoirs, and underground tanks. This would not only prevent flooding of the urban areas in future, but also conserve water for later use in times of crisis.

In recent years, Earthquake Reconstruction and Regulation Authority Water and Sanitation (WatSan) experts, along with international partners, took an initiative based on careful calculations, to revive and develop the age-old practice of rainwater harvesting in Pakistan. It was estimated in the pilot project that no less than 140,000 litres of water with 90% efficiency could easily be collected every year from a house comprising 2-3 rooms with a 30×30-ft roof. The government has already launched a plan to implement the rainwater harvesting initiative. Some 12,000 rainwater harvesting systems have been installed in school buildings, houses and hospitals across 20 union councils of Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJ&K) and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Moreover, the organisation has taken steps to make rainwater harvesting compulsory in all new buildings. The system provides a simple and easy way of collection, management, and effective utilisation of rainwater at a minimal cost. The project has been successful in the earthquake-affected areas.

But the plan should not remain limited to only KP and AJ&K. The Punjab government, after a successful experiment in rainwater harvesting in Lahore, has decided to replicate the project in other districts of the province, in addition to construction of two more underground rainwater storage projects in Lahore. A pilot project, under International Water Management Institute (IWMI) Pakistan, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) and WaterAid Pakistan, an artificial groundwater recharge site was also inaugurated in the Kachnar Park of Islamabad last month. Under the pilot project, seven potential groundwater recharge sites have been identified in Islamabad. Experts say Islamabad receives 1,400mm rain on average annually. By conserving only 30% of rainwater through artificial groundwater recharge sites, it can bridge the demand for 46 million gallons water per day against the 45 million gallon per day supply. The project needs to be replicated across the country on a war-footing, if the country wants to save its future generations from drought-like conditions.