Pakistan is facing a severe groundwater crisis in the absence of a reliable system for measuring extractions and their impact on the resource base. The World Bank (WB) has warned that the rising population and effects of climate change will worsen the crisis and badly affect Pakistan’s people and economy.

In its latest report, the World Bank noted that groundwater is the most poorly understood water resource in Pakistan, a country in which matters of water resources are hotly debated on a regular basis. “The Indus Basin groundwater aquifer in Pakistan holds in storage at least eighty times the volume of freshwater held in the country’s three biggest dams. In the 1960s, large-scale extraction from this underground storage began and has expanded to become an essential input to agriculture and the backbone of domestic water provision,” it said. Highlighting that more than 70pc of Pakistan’s drinking water comes from groundwater, with most rural households accessing water through handpumps, motorised pumps, and manually from wells, the report notes, “Most of the major cities in Pakistan rely on groundwater for domestic supplies, as do 90pc of rural households in Punjab and Sindh.”

The report reminds Pakistan of the grim reality of soaring demand and decreasing supplies of water for agriculture, energy and food production, healthy ecosystems and human survival itself. The water crisis is deepening in Pakistan with every passing day. It is not that Pakistan does not have the resources. Of the total 145 million acre foot (MAF) water that flows annually through Pakistan, up to only 14 MAF can now be stored by its two reservoirs. Experts say Pakistan is throwing 21 MAF water into the sea every year which can fill three reservoirs of the size of the Mangla Dam. The level of underground water is also continuously dropping in Pakistan. According to estimates, the underground water plunges in Islamabad by one metre, in Lahore a half metre and in Balochistan six metres every year.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has placed Pakistan on third position in the context of the looming water crisis. It is despite the fact that no country in the world has more glaciers than Pakistan but it still ranks as the 14th most water stressed country. The Pakistan Council Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) has warned that Pakistan may run out of water by 2025. Today, some 2.2 billion people lack safe drinking water and 4.2 billion people live without access to adequate sanitation, says a United Nations report which calls for reducing both impacts and drivers of climate change and major shifts in the way we use and reuse the Earth’s limited water resources. The new global report calls, among others, for concrete efforts to address rising water stress and improve the efficiency of water use in agriculture and industry, and it outlines actions in three areas: first, enabling people to adapt to the impacts of climate change; second, improving the resilience of livelihoods; and, third, reducing the drivers of climate change.

The 2020 World Water Development Report reveals that water use has increased six-fold over the past century and is rising by about one per cent a year. However, it is estimated that climate change, along with the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme events, storms, floods and droughts, will aggravate the situation in countries already currently experiencing “water stress” and generate similar problems in areas that have not been severely affected. Furthermore, the report highlights the fact that poor water management tends to exacerbate the impacts of climate change, not only on water resources but on society as a whole. By limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world will be in a much better position to manage and solve the water crisis.

According to UNESCO, four billion people worldwide are forced to contend with water scarcity and without sustainable access to water, the world will be unable to achieve goals, such as quality education or the development of more prosperous, fairer societies. It calls on countries to make more concrete commitments to address the challenge, and warns that climate change would affect the availability, quality and quantity of water needed for basic human needs, thus undermining enjoyment of the basic rights to safe drinking water and sanitation for billions of people.

Such a deterioration of the situation would only hinder achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6), which is part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, according to which access to safe drinking water and sanitation must be guaranteed for all within 10 years. This will be a considerable challenge: 2.2 billion people currently do not have access to safely managed drinking water, and 4.2 billion, or 55pc of the world’s population, are without safely managed sanitation. UNESCO said that the critical need to substantially improve access to clean water for drinking and hygiene for billions of the world’s people has been further thrown into stark relief by the current deadly outbreak of COVID-19.

International estimates say water scarcity is particularly acute in Asia as rapid population growth, industrial development and urbanisation heighten the water crisis in the largest and most populous continent. Home to 4.5 billion people, the Asian population uses around 65pc of the world’s water supply. Agriculture accounts for the largest use of water, followed by industrial and municipal uses. According to a research by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis’ (IIASA) Water Program, water scarcity will increase by 74-86pc in Asia, with about 40pc of the continent’s population facing severe water scarcity by 2050.

In Pakistan, the per capita availability of water has dipped below the minimum level of 1,000 cubic metres per year. At least 14.2pc increase in water availability is required to meet the needs of Pakistan’s ballooning population by 2025. Over 27 million Pakistanis lack access to potable water and almost 70pc water is unfit for human consumption. According to estimates, over 80pc of the population of the rural areas is getting contaminated water. Almost 250,000 children under the age of five die every year of waterborne disease, costing the economy around $1.3 billion. Four-fifths of all diseases in Pakistan, such as cholera, diarrhea, typhoid and hepatitis, are caused by contaminated water.

Experts say the country gets 84pc water in the monsoon season and arrangements should be made to store it. One dam should be built after every 10 years. Pakistan has already wasted time and no new dam has been built in decades. On the other hand, Pakistan’s capacity to store water has reduced by 12pc due to silting in the dams. Some experts claim Pakistan still has sufficient water for its needs but it will have to use the precious resource judiciously to save future generations from crisis.

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