“WATER is not only for life … water is life.” This quote by the UN secretary general “reflects the critical importance of water as a need that connects all aspects of human life. People’s well-being and their economic development are profoundly linked to” water availability and usability. Too little water at a time when it is needed most can result in droughts and food insecurity. Conversely, too much water — in the form of floods or storms — can devastate an entire population. Contaminated water, whether from human or industrial sources, claims the lives of children and adults alike, affects the health of communities worldwide and has far-reaching consequences.
The SDGs place emphasis on ensuring sustainable water availability and management. This includes achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for all, and ending open defecation with a particular emphasis on women and girls. But while that is crucial, especially in Pakistan, water’s place in the SDGs goes well beyond access. It must also account for critical issues such as integrated water resources management, the efficiency of use, water quality, trans-boundary cooperation, and issues related to water ecosystems and water disasters.
A holistic water policy is needed.
Problems associated with water are perhaps amongst the most important in Pakistan. The country’s water profile has changed drastically in that it went from being a water-abundant country to a water-stressed country. Per capita water availability during the period 1990–2015 fell from 2,172 to 1,306 cubic metres per inhabitant. Pakistan extracts almost 75 per cent of its “freshwater annually, thereby exerting tremendous pressure on renewable water resources. Despite remarkable improvements in the proportion of the population using improved water sources and improved sanitation facilities”, over 27 million Pakistanis still do not have access to safe water and almost 53m do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities.Approximately 39,000 children under the age of five die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.
The increasing demand for and erratic supply of water in Pakistan is resulting in severe shortages. Factors such as population growth, rapid urbanisation, water-intensive farming practices and industrialisation are all playing a role in increasing the country’s demand for water. The supply side is simultaneously affected by climate change, which, in turn, has made rainfall more erratic and led to both floods and droughts. Excessive groundwater pumping has raised major sustainability concerns. Poor water infrastructure, including limited storage capacity and inadequate canal lining, compounds water availability issues. Another factor of concern is contaminated agricultural run-off, untreated industrial effluent, and household waste that makes its way into water bodies and canals.
There were several attempts at the federal and provincial level to delineate the government’s commitment to combating water issues. The national climate change policy, for example, listed appropriate action plans for enhancing water storage and infrastructure. It spoke in detail of better water-resource management, enhancing institutional capacities and creating awareness about water issues. However, more is needed in terms of implementation. Pakistan has not implemented any major water storage infrastructure projects since the commissioning of the Mangla and Tarbela dams in the 1960s and 1970s, and water storage capacity has often receded to less than 30 days whereas the minimum requirement is 120 days. Successful initiatives do exist, such as the Clean Drinking Water for All project launched in Punjab, which provided clean drinking water through new water filtration plants. However, major initiatives are still limited.
Addressing issues of demand and supply requires interventions at both the individual and state level. Households and industries alike need to use water more efficiently. It is imperative that this apply to the agricultural sector as well. Examples would include strict regulations on the plantation of water-intensive crops and on flood irrigation.
Here public education campaigns focusing on enhancing water usage awareness will help. At the broader level, an integrated water management system that promises efficient water distribution to all sub-sectors, is needed. Such an initiative must be formally entrenched and supported by an effective institutional and legal system.
While water issues have been discussed at the policy level, for example, in the national climate change policy and national drinking water policy, a more holistic national water policy is required. This would include measures to promote efficient use through water pricing, increasing water storage infrastructure, enforcing strict water quality management systems to curb water pollution, controlling population growth and adopting sustainable urbanisation patterns. Immediate attention to these proposals will help ensure that Pakistanis have adequate water.
The writer is country director, UNDP Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2017