The theme for this year’s World Water Day, which is celebrated on March 22, is ‘Why Waste Water?’
It could not be more relevant for an agricultural country like Pakistan.
In this part of the world, we either have too much water in the form of floods, or too little water in the form of droughts. On top of that, climate change and a rapidly expanding population are only making our water problems much worse.
Water is a major issue in Pakistan — per capita water availability has fallen from approximately 5,000 cubic meters per year to around 1,000 cubic meters per year. According to the World Bank, we are heading towards water availability of less than 1,000 cubic meters per year per person by 2035.
“We are now a part of the group of countries where there will be a scarcity of water. In Balochistan, the kaarez have gone dry and even in Lahore the groundwater is going down — you have to pump down to 700 to 800 feet to get water,” explains Hammad Naqi Khan, the director general of WWF-Pakistan.
Our population is completely dependent on the Indus river system for its freshwater needs. A little more than 50pc of that water comes from melting snow and glaciers. Around 90pc of this water is used in agriculture, while 4-5pc is for domestic use, and the rest for industry.
Water wastage is greatest in the agricultural sector. “The way we use water is so inefficient — we use more water per crop than most other places. We need to enforce cropping zones and focus on drought-resistant varieties and efficient agronomic practices," says Khan.
The talk in Pakistan, when it comes to addressing the water crisis, is all about hard infrastructure solutions like the Kalabagh Dam. Howeever, “There are also soft solutions — [for example] we need to plant more low-delta crops," says Khan.
High-delta crops like sugar cane and rice use up a lot of precious water for a country that is already facing water shortages.
“Why are we allowing sugar factories in cotton growing areas, and rice paddy fields in water-stressed areas?” Khan asks.
Even now, the sugar industry is placing ads in national dailies seeking to increase their sugar production to one million tonnes. No one dares to ask these sugar barons where the water is going to come from.
The same pattern of wastage can be seen in the 10% of water used domestically and in industry.
Most industries in Pakistan use sweet groundwater for their production processes — very little of it is recycled. Further, due to industrial waste and agricultural runoff, our drinking water supplies have been contaminated.
A recent study by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) on the provision of safe drinking water found that about 84pc of the 200-million-strong population in Pakistan (estimated; current census is underway) does not have access to safe drinking water.
The Minister for Science and Technology, Rana Tanvir Hussain, recently informed Senate that only 72pc of the water supply schemes were found to be functional across the country, and 84pc of those had supplied water that was not fit for consumption.
In households across the country (except maybe Karachi, where residents actually have to pay the tanker mafia for their water needs and hence value it more), water is considered free and is wasted each day.
There are no metered supplies for water, so homeowners feel they can wash their cars every day.
“There is no carrot or stick to make people conserve water. In other countries, when you consume more water, you pay more,” explains Khan.
According to Khan, the way we are managing water resources is just not sustainable.
WWF-Pakistan is currently working with more than 95,000 cotton farmers to train them and build their capacity in order to enable them to produce sustainable cotton.
During 2014-2015, after training with WWF-Pakistan, cotton farmers made demonstrably better crop management decisions, which resulted in a 12pc reduction in irrigation water utilization, 22pc in pesticide use and 16.33pc in synthetic fertilizers without affecting overall yields.
These farmers are today producing a major chunk of cotton supplied to the international market which has been grown with less water and pesticides. The Better Cotton Initiative is supported by a collective of organisations including Adidas, Gap Inc., IKEA, Organic Exchange, Oxfam and WWF.
The government of Pakistan needs to scale up these kinds of projects.
In the years to come, Pakistan will need more water to grow more food for its growing population, and the country will need to increase crop yields.
These are difficult prospects, given the uncertainties in rainfall due to climate change, the impact of melting glaciers on river flows and the fact that higher carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will be detrimental to overall crop yields.
In fact, teaching farmers to adapt is the first thing the government should be doing.