Published September 10, 2017
Illustration by Reema Siddiqui
Illustration by Reema Siddiqui

The journey from Quetta to Gwadar is almost 20 hours long. It involves changing two buses and witnessing the sight of hundreds of people holding empty buckets, a sight that increases with alarming frequency. As the bus enters the coastal districts of Gwadar and Lasbela in Balochistan, even before it enters Gwadar city proper, the writing is already on the wall: there is a water emergency in Gwadar.

I am scheduled to meet my colleague in Gwadar, Behram Baloch. But before we meet, there is the small matter of boarding and lodging. I eventually check in at the Gwadar Tourist Motel, which is situated near the beach. The motel is constructed over one-and-a-half acres and boasts impressive facilities to boot. An air-conditioned double-bed room is rented out at 3,500 rupees per day, which all seems very affordable till you figure out the catch: “I am very sorry to inform you that tonight I cannot serve clean drinking water to you,” says a deeply apologetic attendant. “The water tanker didn’t bring any water today, so can you please use yesterday’s water if you have any left in your room?”

Even a modern motel charging a decent sum of money is without water, I thought to myself. What would be going on inside people’s homes? Is everyone equally helpless?

In recent years, Gwadar has been thrown into the spotlight as the centre-piece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). After all it provides the warm waters and easier access to the Middle East that the Chinese crave. Despite its significance and immense media attention, the crises of the people, including that of water, have been overlooked. The situation as it stands is in stark contrast to the images of a pulsating sea and a bustling port that are often used to describe Gwadar. Truth be told, Gwadar’s water emergency puts any gains to be made out of CPEC projects in jeopardy — after all, how can an industrial city survive without potable water? Are we being set up for a fall?

Despite being the centrepiece of CPEC, there is not a drop to drink in Balochistan’s city by the sea

The next morning, I meet up with Behram and together we head to the heart of the port city, the Water Works Town of Thana Ward area. Behram tells me that Gwadar’s entire population gets water through water tankers. And the main storage point for water is constructed in the Water Works Town. It is there that we must go first.

At the entrance of the town sit a trio: a police constable, an army official, and a clerk from the Public Health Engineering (PHE) department. All of them hold registers in their hand and make similar notes for the purpose of transparency. “So far today, 309 water tankers have left to supply water to various localities,” reveals the PHE clerk. “This is Gwadar’s only source of potable water.”

Water currently comes to Gwadar through pipelines from the Mirani Dam. It is delivered to the Water Works Town, and from there, it gets supplied onwards to the rest of the city. All water is stored in a large underground tank and tankers are filled from this point.

“Whenever water trailers are sent to union councils, representatives of the union themselves distribute water,” claims the clerk.

Away from the trio, a 60,000-litre oil trailer bags our attention. Visible is the message painted in red: “Dangerous, Crude Oil”. But the driver perched atop the trailer wasn’t filling oil in the drum. He was filling it up with water.

“This is not new,” explains Behram Baloch. “Water tankers have been used in the past to supply crude oil and petrol, but now these trailers have been brought from Karachi and elsewhere to fulfil the water needs of Gwadar.”

This practice poses health hazards as it runs a high risk of contamination and toxicity. Local administration and government officials are well aware of the practice but they have not done anything to stop it. Nor does it seem they want to.

In July this year, the PCSIR Laboratories Complex in Karachi ran water quality tests on samples collected from the Mirani Dam. The investigation was commissioned by the executive engineer of the PHE department in Gwadar. The test report, dated July 4, 2017, and signed by Director General Dr Khaula Shirin, declares: “The provided sample of water is microbiologically not fit for human consumption, within the scope of analysed parameters, according to the WHO guidelines.”

“We have cleaned up these water trailers,” says Shakeel Baloch, executive district officer of the PHE department in Gwadar. “After cleaning them up, we are using them for the purpose of supplying water to the city. These trailers do not contain hazardous contents any longer.”

Water trailers range in capacity between 4,000 and 12,000 gallons of water. These are mostly owned by private enterprises, which means that the government pays them for a service. “So far, our department has paid one billion rupees to these water trailer operators,” says Shakeel Baloch, “and we still owe them a huge amount.”

Are residents compelled to use water brought to them by trailer operators?

“What else can we do? There is not a single drop of water to drink,” says Hafeez Baloch, a resident of Bakhshi Baloch Colony that is situated in proximity to the seaside.

Water used to be supplied to homes once upon a time but today, there is no water in the pipelines. That is why citizens are mostly dependent on water trailer operators, and they buy water from them.

“The population of Gwadar needs six million [60 lacs] gallons of water while supply is zero,” explains Dr Sajjad Hussain, the chief engineer at the Gwadar Development Authority (GDA). “Residents have to pay at least 17,000 rupees per tanker. That means about six rupees for one gallon of water. This is more expensive than bottled water.”


A family lies in wait on the main road for a trailer to donate some water to them | Photos by the writer
A family lies in wait on the main road for a trailer to donate some water to them | Photos by the writer

In theory, Gwadar was supplied water through two major sources: the Akra Kaur Dam and the Mirani Dam.

Constructed in the 1990s and situated 32 kilometres to the north of Gwadar district, Akra Kaur Dam’s storage capacity initially was 17,000 acre-feet. It is now down to 6,000 acre-feet because of a lack of maintenance. At the time, residents of Gwadar claim that the population of their town was around 20,000. And while the Akra Kaur Dam was clearly built for a small population, Gwadar’s population has increased manifold ever since — today, it stands at about 100,000.

“Since Gwadar has now been declared a mega-city, there is a lot of construction activity going on, in both the public sector and the private [sector],” explains Shakeel Baloch. “All of them are, of course, consuming water. This means that demand is more and supply is less.”

And with CPEC projects now in full flow, the demand for water in Gwadar has steadily crept upwards. Shakeel estimates that the current demand is seven million (70 lacs) gallons of water.

“When there was water in the Akra Kaur Dam, we could supply 3.5 million gallons of water to Gwadar’s population,” continues Shakeel. “Now there is no water. That is why we are now forced to bring in water from the Mirani Dam.”

According to the PHE officer, they provide water through a maximum of 400 to 500 water trailers for the city’s potable water needs.

And yet the water shortfall persists.

In the past, 10 tube wells were installed along the Suntsar Dam, which is situated near the Pakistan-Iran border on the River Dasht. Due to a lack of rainfall, these couldn’t be utilised nor do they have the capacity to fulfil the water needs of Gwadar.

An oil trailer being filled with water
An oil trailer being filled with water

“We hardly get half a million gallons of water from Suntsar,” explains Shakeel Baloch. “In the past, once the Akra Kaur Dam would get filled, it would continuously provide water to people for up to five years. Its 17, 000 acre-feet storage met the demand for water. But now, even its capacity has decreased due to silting. Currently, there is no water in Akra Kaur due to a lack of rain and the dam itself has reached the dead level.”

Across Makran division, there has been a dry spell for years now. It rarely rains.

“Notwithstanding the fact that there are 380 big and small seasonal rivers in Makran, there is extreme shortage of water in Makran, particularly in Gwadar, all because of criminal negligence of the government officials,” argues journalist Siddique Baloch. “Shadi Kaur Dam was washed away while Sawar Dam is currently being constructed. Due to these reasons, residents of Gwadar are at the mercy of the water trailer mafia. In a nutshell, they are punishing the entire population of Gwadar.”

The veteran journalist explains that when the Asian Development Bank constructed the Akra Kaur Dam at a cost of 54 crore rupees, it was built for the purpose of storing potable water, not water for industrial and commercial purposes. “Due to alleged corruption by the state-owned National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK), the dam silted up in less than 15 years,” he says. “Desilting takes place by trucks but it is a very slow process.”

Gwadar’s major source of potable water today is the Mirani Dam but that, too, is a story of usurping one area’s rights to placate another.

Situated 43 kilometres west of Turbat city, the Mirani Dam ought to have been Turbat’s main water supply. But the people of Turbat complain that water from the dam is supplied to Gwadar for home and industrial use but Turbat itself has been pushed into severe shortage of water.

“Since the Mirani Dam is in Turbat, the first right to water is of people living in surrounding areas,” explains water expert Dr Shahid Ahmad, who is currently working on different water projects in Balochistan.

Even if the question of whose right takes precedence were to be set aside, there are major concerns on the quality of water being supplied from Mirani Dam.

When the question was put to PHE’s EDO Shakeel Baloch, he was adamant that “Mirani Dam’s water cannot be filtered; we have tested that water and it does not contain any hazardous elements which can be injurious to health.”

On the other hand, in July this year, the PCSIR (Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research)Laboratories Complex in Karachi ran water quality tests on samples collected from Mirani Dam. The investigation was commissioned by the executive engineer of the PHE department in Gwadar. The test report, dated July 4, 2017, and signed by Director General Dr Khaula Shirin, declares: “The provided sample of water is microbiologically not fit for human consumption, within the scope of analysed parameters, according to the World Health Organisation [WHO] guidelines.”


The reservoir in Water Works Town that stores all of Gwadar’s water
The reservoir in Water Works Town that stores all of Gwadar’s water

In the Komari Ward of Mulla Bandh locality, fisherman Asghar Baloch stands besides his boat. “Thankfully we get water once a week,” he says, “probably because we are near the port area.”

Indeed, residents of the New Komari Ward and the port road of Gwadar describe themselves as “fortunate” to get some water supply. The rest of the localities, these residents claim, don’t get a single drop to drink.

“We get water once every month,” says a shopkeeper in the area named Abu Bakr Baloch. “Obviously that is not enough. So we have to buy 400 gallons more, for about 4,000 rupees in total, in order to meet our water requirements.”

And what of the water quality?

“Thank God, the water from Mirani Dam is better and sweeter than water from Akra Kaur Dam,” says Abu Bakr. “Water from Akra Kaur Dam was always tasteless.”

From time to time, the people of Gwadar, members of political parties and local traders protest against the shortage of water in Gwadar.

“We are running out of patience because nobody pays heed to this key issue of ours,” says Hashim Baloch, a resident of Padi Zer. “The crisis is worsening by the day.”

As a matter of fact, the people of Gwadar have been facing a crisis of potable water for many decades now. Governments, both provincial and federal, have time and again promised the people of Gwadar to resolve it. But nothing much has changed on the ground. In the rural areas, people — particularly women — still fetch water from far-flung areas to fulfil their water needs. Many people have also migrated away from the rural areas of Gwadar city district due to water shortage.

Most development works of note in Balochistan date back to the 1970s, when the National Awami Party (NAP) was in power and Baloch nationalist leaders were in government. Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo in his capacity as the governor of Balochistan tried to resolve the water crisis of the port town. Unfortunately, his period in governance was short-lived.

“Mir Sahib wanted to connect Gwadar with Dasht,” explains Siddique Baloch, a veteran journalist based in Quetta. “Dasht, which is one of the two biggest tehsils in neighbouring Kech district, was to supply water to Gwadar through building reservoirs on the river and also utilising other water potential. But their government was not allowed to rule for more than nine months, which is why his initiatives could not see the light of day. The water issue of Gwadar was one of them.”

By the late 1970s and the 1980s, there was not even a single development related to the water woes of Gwadar district. Today locals chase after water trailers to beg for water to drink.

But as CPEC arrived in Gwadar and the Chinese began frequenting the port city, they realised that water was a major concern. A small-sized desalination plant was set up at the port, which can provide one million gallons of water. Unlike the other desalination plants in Gwadar which are lying either idle or in disrepair, this plant has been running smoothly ever since it was set up.

The reason for that is that this desalination plant has been set up for Chinese engineers and other Pakistani workers who have come from out of the province to work in Gwadar. Currently, according to one official, there are 300 Chinese and 700 Pakistanis for whom the plant is providing water.

Given the gravity of the situation, Gwadar residents often ask: “Why can’t our government officials set up the same plants for our water needs?”

The answer is a combination of governmental corruption, mismanagement, and now, even the quality of water.

At the time when General (retd) Pervez Musharraf was in power, attempts were made to set up desalination plants in Gwadar. “Two desalination plants had to be built by the Balochistan Development Authority (BDA) and the Industry and Commerce department,” recalls Siddique Baloch. “But there was alleged embezzlement of funds and the two desalination plants failed to function. The same corruption is going on till this day when it comes to desalination plants.”

“A desalination plant was given to us by the BDA, which was already not running,” says PHE’s Shakeel Baloch. “We are now trying to rehabilitate it, so that we may run it at full-capacity. Previously, the intake of the desalination plant was destroyed. If you were to run it, it would require three million rupees, which is quite costly.”

Instead of repairing the already established plants, the provincial government has moved one step further. “The Balochistan government has given 60 crore rupees to the PHE department to set up eight small desalination plants,” discloses Shakeel Baloch. “These small desalination plants will provide one or two million gallons of water to Gwadar’s population.”

But desalination plants need lots of energy to run while there is an acute shortage of energy in Gwadar. How does the PHE department plan to counter that?

“We will get generators from the government to run them,” claims Shakeel Baloch, “that is not a big deal.”


Officials are pinning their hopes on the largely rain-fed Sawar Dam. But till now, it remains disconnected from Gwadar as the pipelines connecting the reservoir to the coastal city have still not been laid | Balochistan Irrigation Department
Officials are pinning their hopes on the largely rain-fed Sawar Dam. But till now, it remains disconnected from Gwadar as the pipelines connecting the reservoir to the coastal city have still not been laid | Balochistan Irrigation Department

The ancient history of Gwadar says that today’s populated coastal towns of Gwadar district are standing on land that was previously part of the sea. Over a long period of time, as the sea retreated, these places were gradually inhabited. This is why water in Gwadar is naturally salty, particularly when bores are dug in the land.

“When you dig into the land a little deeper, you reach salty water,” claims journalist Siddique Baloch. “People often use that water for drinking purposes but saline water changes the chemistry of a person’s body.”

Seawater intrusion is a common phenomenon associated with coastal towns across the world but it also leads to the addition of arsenic materials in water bodies. Mostly, intrusion occurs underwater and so it is not visually detectable.

A team of six researchers from Karachi, however, have been able to prove the extent of seawater intrusion in Gwadar district. In a research paper titled “Impact of Seawater Intrusion on the Geochemistry of Groundwater of Gwadar District, Balochistan and Its Appraisal for Drinking Water Quality” published in the Arabian Journal for Science and Engineering, the six argue that based on the water samples collected, the concentration of nitrate and fluoride was higher than the WHO permissible limit and may, therefore, pose a health threat to the local population.

The six researchers — Shahid Naseem, Erum Bashir, Pazeer Ahmed, Tahir Rafique, Salma Hamza and Maria Kaleem — collected 31 groundwater samples from the coastal towns of Jiwani, Ganz, Pishukan, Gwadar and Sur Bander. “In this zone, fresh groundwater flows above seawater, with a water transition zone in between them. [The] overuse of groundwater in the coastal area, due to the ever-increasing population density, therefore results in seawater intrusion into the coastal aquifers.”

Water expert Dr Ahmad explains that while the movement of seawater in coastal areas happens everywhere in the world, when people start pumping water from the ground, it leads to a vacuum that is spontaneously filled by seawater.

“Due to drought and absence of rainfall, people dig deeper for bores and tube wells and land salty water,” says Dr Ahmad. “But this is an unnatural process since there is no solution to seawater intrusion.”

But while there in no connection between seawater intrusion and desalination, what has happened is that in areas that have gone without rainfall for prolonged periods, groundwater has been pushed back by seawater. If people were digging for potable water before, now they will only get seawater.

“One of the impacts of seawater intrusion will be that the cost of desalination will increase manifold,” says Shahid Naseem, the team lead on the research quoted above. “When water was being supplied through the Akra Kaur Dam, it had high sulphur content. This was manifesting in rumbling tummies, a complaint that was often heard across Gwadar.”

Mohammad Imran, who works at the PHE in Gwadar, explains that “Water quality can be assessed through its chemical property and biological property. In Gwadar, the chemical property of water is all right but the biological one is not because there are leakages in pipelines. To make matters worse, water trailers are not very clean either.”

While no patients have reported health hazards due to drinking water at the District Headquarters Hospital, Gwadar, Medical Superintendent (MS) Dr Abdul Latif Dashti cautions that the effects of consuming contaminated water can only be seen in the longer run.

“As compared to the Akra Kaur Dam, the water in Mirani Dam is comparatively better,” says Dashti. “As rainwater that gets stored in dams becomes old, it poses health problems. Patients coming to us with complaints of diarrhoea, gastro, Hepatitis B and C, blood pressure and kidney stones, all tend to complain of water quality.”


Gravel accumulating in the outlets of Sawar Dam | Balochistan Irrigation Department
Gravel accumulating in the outlets of Sawar Dam | Balochistan Irrigation Department

The locality of New Town in Gwadar houses working-class Baloch, most of whom reside in shanties by the roadside. It is difficult to escape the feeling that they are living in medieval times even though modern Gwadar is built up as a neoliberal dream.

Two drums have been kept in front of Ashraf’s hut along with bushes. “I get these drums filled every day, when water trailers pass through our area. Sometimes I pay them a small amount, at other times some good tanker drivers give us water free of charge.”

When asked about the taste of water, he retorts: “What is taste? Water is water … at least, I get water to drink.”

To rid the city of such cases, there is a need to go back to the drawing board and assess realities anew. In coastal areas, claim water experts and officials, water can be supplied by two ways: dams and desalination plants. If neither exist, the situation resembles that of Gwadar, where there is almost total reliance on water trailers to fill the vacuum.

“Our folly was been to populate first then plan,” argues Naseem. “We should have first ensured supply of potable water before populating the city.”

Government officials in Gwadar are currently putting all their eggs into the Sawar Dam basket. Situated across the River Sawar, 75 kilometres north-east of Gwadar district, the dam is being constructed at a cost of 948.653 million rupees. Covering an area of 4,500 acres, it has a reservoir life of 30 years.

“Farm families will benefit as 4,500 acres of barren land will be made cultivable,” explains an irrigation department official in Gwadar. “Water for drinking and other domestic requirements will also become available to those living near the dam. Water will also be supplied to the Karwat Industrial Estate.”

Since last year, government officials have been claiming that the Sawar Dam is ready to function except that the pipelines linking the dam to Gwadar needed to be laid out. The same line is pulled out once again by government officials.

Nevertheless, Shakeel Baloch seems confident: “In a Public Sector Development Program (PSDP) scheme, two billion rupees have been allocated to provide water to Gwadar from the Sawar Dam. I am pretty sure this crisis will likely end in a year or so.”

“Sawar Dam will provide five million gallons of water to Gwadar but it is also rain-dependent,” observes GDA’s Dr Sajjad Hussain. “The rebuilding of the Shadi Kaur Dam will take one-and-a-half years. And in future, the Shadi Kaur Dam will be connected with Sawar Dam.”

Construction of dams and storage of water in these dams fall under the domain of the irrigation department. Officials of the department claim that they are building up dams, including Basol, Kanero and others. And while some of these dams are ready, there has been no rainfall yet to fill them up.

Siddique Baloch, on the other hand, was not impressed with how dams are being built up and water stored there. “When the Shadi Kaur was first constructed,” he recalls, “it was washed away. Since there are no checks and balances, these dams in Gwadar and its surrounding areas can get washed away any time due to heavy rain or floods.”

Unfortunately beyond these grand schemes, government plans about providing potable water to Gwadar are almost non-existent. Back in January this year, then federal minister for planning, development and reform Ahsan Iqbal had visited Gwadar and directed the authorities concerned to immediately resolve the issue of potable water shortage in Gwadar. This meeting was attended by officials from the Balochistan governemnt’s planning ministry and the GDA.

And yet, a drought-like situation persists in the area even today. Karezes, the indigenous method of tapping groundwater, have gone dry while underground water levels have gone from bad to worse. Several meetings such as the one conducted by Iqbal have been held in Quetta and Gwadar for Gwadar’s needs, but all in vain. In the past, as the crisis assumed catastrophic proportions, water was brought to Gwadar from Karachi via a large Pakistan Navy ship. No permanent measures appear to be anywhere near completion.

Ultimately, Pakistan’s reliance on CPEC provides a saving grace.

“Through the CPEC project, pipelines are to be given for the Sawar and Shadi Kaur dams,” explains Dostain Jamaldini, the incumbent chairman of the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA).

“There is also one desalination plant which the GDA will complete. This will provide five million gallons of water,” adds Shakeel Baloch.

On the other hand, however, Dr Sajjad Hussain concedes that had existing desalination plants not fallen into disrepair, it would have been providing two million gallons of water. “I personally think that desalination plants should be outsourced and given to a company,” he says. “The desalination plants approved under CPEC will take one-and-a-half years to complete. Despite challenges, we hope we will end this crisis. The water of Akra Kaur Dam will also get treated. Dam water is sweet, it does not have any major issues.”

But for Dr Ahmad, it is clear that the government cannot run desalination plants even if it were to establish them. What the government ought to do is to subsidise water instead.

“The least the role of the government in this regard, the better the quality of potable water the people will have access to,” argues the doctor. “Private firms will fix a price for water, the government should provide subsidy to the people. Suppose one litre of water is sold at two rupees, one rupee will be paid by citizens and the other by the government.”

But who will create this plan, given that government officials in Quetta remain either tight-lipped or absent when it comes to the water emergency in Gwadar?

“Clean drinking water is a provincial subject,” replies the doctor. “It is the provincial government of Balochistan that ought to make a master plan for providing clean drinking water to Gwadar and beyond.”

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @Akbar_Notezai



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