Dawn News

There’s been much discussion lately about the “water kit,” a mysterious contraption that a purported Pakistani engineer insists will enable cars to use water as fuel.

Yet missing from this debate is a basic but critical fact: Pakistan is dangerously water-deficient. Per capita availability hovers just above the scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. In several decades, availability could plummet to 550 cubic meters.

So even if this bizarre water car somehow defied the laws of physics and managed to work, it would be unsustainable — unless it used the Arabian Sea as a giant filling station, or guzzled bottled water.

It’s not surprising that few have mentioned this water dilemma. Water resource issues —and other human security topics like food security, public health, and education — are repeatedly drowned out of Pakistani public debate by the incessant din surrounding militancy, political drama, and the US-Pakistan relationship.

This is unfortunate, because human security issues affect so many more Pakistanis than do extremism, political infighting, or US policies.

By no means am I minimising or trivialising the 35,000 Pakistanis killed in terror – and counter-terror related violence, the scores of tribal residents traumatised by drone strikes, or the many Karachiites harmed by their city’s unrest.

However, this doesn’t compare to the 40 to 55 million Pakistanis without access to safe drinking water. Or to the nearly 60 per cent — that’s almost two-thirds of the total population — designated as food insecure (“Pakistan will lose an entire generation to malnutrition,”warns a UNICEF officer). Or to the more than 40 million of Pakistan’s 70 million school-age children (ages 5 to 19) not in school.

This frequently brings deadly consequences. Yet how often, other than at the occasional conference or report release, is anything heard about the 1.2 million Pakistani lives lost to waterborne disease each year — and those of the 630 children lost each day? Or about the malnutrition responsible for about half of Pakistan’s child deaths? Or about the 46 of every 1,000 babies born dead — the world’s highest stillbirth rate?

My own experiences are instructive. When I first started writing for Dawn and other Pakistani outlets, I focused on human security issues in the country — such as large-scale foreign acquisitions of farmland and poor water-demand management. On the day after Osama Bin Laden’s capture, I published a piece examining how aquaculture can alleviate food insecurity.

These writings generated a modest response, and resulted in some interesting and fruitful discussions with Pakistanis involved in these matters. Yet I received a much larger response from Americans, and from US government officials pursuing development projects in Pakistan.

Only more recently have I begun writing on hard security issues and the US-Pakistan relationship. These pieces have produced a much larger and noisier Pakistani response — from well-reasoned emails to an ever-cascading volume of equal-opportunity hate mail (accusing me of being both a CIA agent and a stooge of the Pakistani establishment).

My point is that there seems to be a relatively limited audience in Pakistan for the decidedly less sexy topics of human security. This is not to say no one is talking about them. Ahmad Rafay Alam, Syed Mohammad Ali, Zofeen Ebrahim, Zubeida Mustafa, and Najma Sadeque, among others, ensure they receive a modicum of coverage in the print media.

Yet on the uber-popular television news shows, nary a word is heard. Instead of debating water, angry guests hurl glasses of it at each other. Meanwhile, the politicians complain about India stealing it (in recent weeks, the Difa-e-Pakistan Council has been escalating such claims).

Because of their prominence and reach, it is the news anchors and politicians who most need to get these issues on the front burner. What if Hamid Mir produced a show about Pakistan’s acute food insecurity? Or if Meher Bokhari directed her shrill criticism toward the feudal landlords who prevent irrigation water from reaching poor farmers? Or if Maya Khan, instead of prowling Karachi’s public parks for frolicking couples, scoured the city for leaking water pipes and electricity theft?

And what if the PML-N handed out free water purification tablets instead of laptops? Or if Imran Khan promised a million nutritious meals, not an end to corruption, in 90 days?

Such efforts would resonate. Yet because they’re perceived not to “sell” or to provide satisfactory political advantages, they won’t be forthcoming anytime soon.

If only media and political celebrities took the lead of Pakistan’s civil society. Here, as I’ve explained previously, rural radio programs spotlight woman’s struggles to secure water, and university buildings showcase rainwater harvesting and other resource-conservation methods. Additionally, theaters put on performances that spotlight the role of the arts in addressing Pakistan’s water crisis.

These are examples worth emulating. The water kit may be sheer fantasy, but the struggles of Pakistan’s sick, food-insecure, and water-short are not. They deserve much more attention.


The author is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Email feedback and queries to Dawn.com's editorial team, or visit our contact page

Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

He can be reached at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org or on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (23) Closed

Gerry D'Cunha
Aug 16, 2012 09:50am
My God, imagine if remaining water is consumed by machine/cars, what would be the state of poor people who now can drink free water and quience their thirst/hunger - in the coming years these corrupt politicans will grab the water from the poorer class and mint money - remember the curse of God is not very far.
Aurangzeb Khan
Aug 16, 2012 04:26pm
Thank you for this highly relevant piece. It is a great misfortune that there are not more voices, particularly within Pakistan, entering similar pleas--or more ears open to hear and act on such information. Perhaps when a crisis ensues people will then listen.
Aug 16, 2012 04:13pm
Development and giving good quality of life for its citizens was never on agenda of the people who ruled Pakistan. All we hear from them is always 'strategic' in nature one way or other, boasting of being a nuclear power, Allies of US or all weather friends of China, Justice for Kashmiris, Strategic depth in Afganistan, and, add the divine mandate they have from heavens to destory a secular Hindu majority India. Thats all. Trade, economic ties are also not on agenda either. Have a look at the summersaults Pakistan doing on granting MFN to India. So if water issue comes to central ward of Pakistan politics it will again be used as another weapon to create ill-will towards India.
Zahid Hussain Shah
Aug 16, 2012 12:04pm
Thank you Michael for a wounderful article, an eye opener and a record document for students and social workers. Highly appreciated
Sangeen Khan
Aug 16, 2012 03:38pm
Agree totally. There are so many issues that need to be taken up seriously and if i may add, immediately, like now, otherwise it is going to be a big mess in our country not very far in the future. Water is one of the biggest and most important issues that need to taken up by the authorities that are responsible for them. I am water engineer working in a European country since last few years, have so many times tried to contact people in WAPDA, IRSA and other organizations for different issues and haven't heard anything from them even once. It is real shame. There are multitude of problems/issues/areas of concern that should be noted:
Aug 17, 2012 03:00pm
This is a National Security issue.
Aug 17, 2012 12:56pm
The number of dams which India has been building or have been built in Kashmir is causing this problem in pakistan, almost all the rivers have been shrunk, I remember when I was a kid and we used to travel from karachi to hyderabad, we had to pass a bridge over Indus river before It was full of water whole year now you can only see a thin stream of water, its very sad. Pakistani goverment is not serious about these issues, they should talk with India seriously instead of turing a blind eye.
Cyrus Howell
Aug 24, 2012 07:14pm
There is understanding... Then the courage to take action is needed.
Aug 16, 2012 03:04pm
How wonderfully accurate this is. Every line rings true. Indeed we all need to contribute to making such topics heard on TV and in other media. I for one will watch a program on such issues with way more attention than any of the multiple chat shows dealing with the sensational political news of the day. These political issues keep on being replaced by a new one everyday and the real issues remain on the sidelines. And our population keeps watching the same old nonsense in a new garb, mesmerized by the fake passion and vitriol surrounding these issues. As my contribution, I am going to send an email linking this article to various news anchors asking them to screen a program on these real issues. It would help if others here would please do the same. All together maybe we can get the media to change the agenda! Also if someone can contribute email addresses of TV anchors I would be grateful! Thanks.
Aug 16, 2012 11:12am
Water stress in Pakistan is one of the most potent threats being faced by Pakistan, but the militancy and instability just doesn't put the spotlight on it as is needed. Thanks for highlighting this issue Michael
Aug 16, 2012 10:51am
Surprised! The land through which the mighty Indus flows ahs water problems? 40m of 70m children not in school, in the twentyfirst century? Why has Pakistan gone so wrong?
Aug 16, 2012 10:56am
After the water for car discovery,only if some Pakistani scientist can find a cheap, or economical way to produce safe drinking water from sea water.There is a system now called reverse osmosis;but is expensive for poor countries.So is treating waste water.Like Singapore does.
Arva Veer
Aug 16, 2012 09:19am
There is not a single comment here. That in itself is a comment on how the water problem is perceived in Pak. All you want to do is blame India for all your problems.
Capt C M Khan
Aug 16, 2012 08:41am
Excellent article. The media and news and Politicans and the new regime of JUDICARY must all unite to eradicate all shortcomings for the ordinary Pakistani.
M Arif
Aug 16, 2012 08:44am
"Human body is a machine fueled by water", water is already going scare and what if the reamining water will consumed by machines/cars so what the human/plants/trees will drink. Scientist and engineer must think to recycle the waste and produce energy or fuel. Thank you. Arif - Karachi
Ayesha Naveed
Aug 16, 2012 08:53am
Beautifully illustrated I must say! Yeah this is the dire issue that demands immediate action, our politicians are so busy in gulping piles of riches and then confronting SC to gain immunity that they don't care who dies here and who doesn't manage to get safe drinking water. In Pakistan the only crime is to be poor and helpless, all other mights are right. People here will go to any extent to oppose construction of dams and rather watch that water get wasted in sea....what a shame! I just so hope we can get people with conscience still alive!
Aug 16, 2012 09:38am
Eye opener...thanks Michael
Aug 17, 2012 12:13am
Pakistan gets more water per person compared to India. Still India allows the water from India to flow to Pakistan. Looking at all the wars and terrorism created by Pakistan, it is a great wonder that the water is still allowed to flow. Any other country would have diverted all ther rivers to water starvede india stete of Rajasthan. Pakistan should learn to live with the water flow created by the rain in its own territory. That is a stable way of survival.
Aug 17, 2012 01:31am
An excellent article and must be praised. I have worked for US AID for more than thirty years and be informed that most of the Project Papers were written on such important, Food Security Management,Water Management and Watershed Management aand Sustainability Issues. Well, looks like you wish to try your luck, good wishes. But US AID could not do much in this regard. If any person in Pakistan can be real helpful to you in this regard is Dr. Zafar Altaf who can really understand what you are talking about. I had worked with him. He comprehends well.
Bakhtawer Bilal
Aug 17, 2012 04:39am
We are seeing an explosion of new universities coming into being. What research is being done? Apparently not much. Cannot do research, ok go for plagiarism. Learn from other countries who have limited water but are doing very well in agriculture. Israel is doing well with their drip irrigation system. We should learn from the world. There is a world beyond Saudi Arabia.
Sultan Tareen
Aug 17, 2012 05:32am
Oh. great. nice to share information on such issues concerned to our basic rights, all comments mostly from those parts of the country or regions which are having some water on surface of the land, but here i share the water issue of Balochistan which is again facing drought in these days where other upper parts of the country is having rains but here agian no rain and secondly, we are getting water deep from 1000 to 1200 feet during this time of the year through electricity, which is provided in cities for just 12 hours and in rural centers for just 4 to 6 hours in complete 24 hours. So think of this situation once and still no steps have been taken to resolve this core issue. Therefore, these issue must be highlighted in our media and people or the departments working or are responsible for this must be asked.
Tahir Saleem
Aug 18, 2012 03:34am
you only need to read history o know how civilisations have collapsed due to water shortage. Clean water is the ultimate luxuary.
Mohammad B Khan
Aug 19, 2012 02:51am
Oh yes,nobody thought about it.Very intelligent.