Flowing out of the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalaya (HKH) mountain ranges through dry plains to the Arabian Sea, the Indus River and its tributaries (Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas) are central to water, food and energy security in Pakistan. Collectively known as “the Indus Basin”, it is Pakistan’s primary source of fresh surface water and actively replenishes its ground water resources, along with providing nearly 90 percent of the country’s irrigation water for agriculture.
Water is an absolutely critical part of our daily lives, yet we are forced to make do with limited amounts of water due to immense shortages. Increasing demand for water is pushing the country’s vulnerable system to its limits, as a result of which the country faces a water shortage.
Pakistan was first classified as ‘water stressed’ in 1990. Over the years, while our population has increased, inefficient practices regarding the use of this precious resource have lingered. As a result we are now headed towards the ‘water scarcity’ line — according to the World Resources Institute (2015) report, water availability has fallen below 1,000 cubic meter per person as against 5,600 cubic meter per person at the time of independence. Accompanied with inefficient practices and population growth, climate change poses an additional threat to the already stressed water resources of the country.
As population increases, better management of water resources becomes more imperative for Pakistan
Recently a study was conducted to review the vulnerability of Pakistan’s water sector due to climate change by the Centre for Climate Research and Development at COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Islamabad and the International Institute for Sustainable Development in partnership with the ministry of climate change and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Pakistan.
The study shows that climate change does not appear to pose a significant threat to water supply in the coming decades. Scientific evidence suggests that until at least 2050 the volume of water flowing in the Indus River and its tributaries is likely to remain relatively stable or even increase.
However, the study also suggests that higher temperatures and growing population will lead to a significant increase in water demand across Pakistan, adding to the stress on our water system. In order to prevent disastrous consequences, we need to significantly increase our focus on managing the increasing demand for water.
There are several key steps that can and should be taken immediately to mitigate the problem. The first integral step is to improve irrigation practices. The Indus River irrigation system has large inefficiencies, and only about 30 per cent of the water flowing through the system is delivered to farms while farmers at the tail end of the system rarely get water.
We can improve these inefficiencies by ensuring that farmers use modern irrigation practices to yield maximum production per unit of water used and the result is not water logging. In the current scenario, the sprinkler or drip irrigation methods is one of the most efficient ways to irrigate land. These systems save up to 70 percent water as compared to conventional flood irrigation method which is currently in use.
In addition to promoting high-efficiency irrigation systems among farmers with small holdings, the next second step is to improve water management more broadly. This can be done by enforcing regulations in a better way, as well as by raising water prices and recovery rates. The revenues that are currently generated are not enough to meet the operation and maintenance costs in terms of hiring management staff and maintaining infrastructure. For instance, in Punjab, water is charged at a meagre flat rate of 85 rupees per cropped acre during summer (kharif season) and 50 rupees per acre during the winter (rabi season). As a result revenue collection is only 68 percent of operation and maintenance expenditures (Agriculture and Food Security Policy, Government of Pakistan, 2013). This ratio between operation / maintenance cost and revenue collection is 80 and 77 percent in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa respectively (Agriculture and Food Security Policy, Government of Pakistan, 2013).
A third critical step we can take is to urgently improve our water storage system. Not much of the water flowing through the Indus River is being stored for future use during the rabi and drought season. The back-up supply of water is only enough to last 30 days — dangerously far below the recommended 1,000 days. According to the ministry of water and power (MoP, 2005), due to the non-availability of enough storage facilities and sedimentation of existing reservoirs, approximately 25 to 30 MAF (million acre feet) of water flows into the sea annually against approximately 10 MAF needed to flow downstream the Kotri barrage for environmental needs. However, according to Dr Zaigham Habib, a consultant working in the water sector, downstream Kotri flow in the last 10 years (2006-2015) has decreased to 15-20 MAF. This extra water flowing into the sea can be stored by building new reservoirs or upgrading the existing ones to make Pakistan a water secure country.
The importance of taking steps to better manage our water cannot be overstated. Pakistan’s population has increased four times since independence, and is expected to grow to more than 300 million by 2050.
We need a plan of action to keep our system from buckling under the weight of this growing water demand. By managing our existing water resources through better irrigation practices and improving how we store water for future use, we can make sure that every drop counts.
Dr Saeed A. Asad is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Climate Research and Development at COMSATS Institute of Information Technology Islamabad.
Jo-Ellen Parry is the climate change adaptation lead for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 1st, 2017