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Water scarcity

May 29, 2018

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PAKISTAN is inching towards a serious water crisis as per capita water availability is falling due to diminishing freshwater supplies and the exponentially increasing demands of our burgeoning population. This year, our river inflows have been at an all-time low due to lower-than-normal precipitation in the catchment areas triggered by climate change. In recent meetings, the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) has pointed out acute water shortage in the Indus basin river system. Irrigation supplies for winter crops in Punjab were 40 per cent lower than historical averages. More than 90pc of our fresh water is used in agriculture and 60pc of our population is directly or indirectly associated with agriculture.

Demand for drinking water in cities is growing rapidly as they expand sans prudent urban water management. Many parts of Karachi are already experiencing a Cape Town-like Day Zero.

The challenges are twofold: decreasing river inflows and reckless water management. Let’s begin with water scarcity. The Falkenmark Water Stress Indicator sets 1,000 cubic metres per capita as the threshold where water shortage starts hurting economic growth and human health. Pakistan began in 1947 with 5,650 cubic metre per capita fresh water annually, way above this threshold.

Post Indus Waters Treaty, river inflows have dwindled whereas population growth has continued unabated. In 2010, a water management expert associated with the Punjab Irrigation Department said that our annual water availability was 1,000 cubic metre per person and these figures were based on population projections.

The 2017 census data changes the water availability equation altogether making our annual per capita fresh water around 850 cubic metres; it puts us in seriously water-scarce countries’ basket. Our diminishing river inflows can be attributed to the increasing number of dams our upstream neighbour continues to build on our rivers and lower-than-normal precipitation in the catchment areas because of climate change.

New reservoirs are needed immediately.

Meanwhile, we’ve shown wanton disregard for managing our water resources — surface and ground — efficiently. In the last six decades, Pakistan hasn’t built a single major water reservoir. Wapda sources claim Pakistan fritters away water worth Rs25 billion every year. Tarbela, one of the two existing reservoirs, has lost its storage capacity by over three million acre feet due to silt buildup. Our failure to build any new reservoirs after its construction in the mid ’70s, shows our short-sightedness and ineptitude. Out of the 145 MAF we receive annually, we store only 14 MAF.

According to Irsa figures, Pakistan has been discharging an average of 30 MAF annually into the ocean whereas the requisite environmental flow downstream of Kotri is less than 8 MAF. We are practically squandering liquid gold by not building new reservoirs. During the dry winter season, our irrigation system relies solely on water stored in the Tarbela and Mangla dams. This year both have been at dead level throughout the spring season, so the tail reaches of the Indus basin irrigation system have not had any significant supplies.

The tale of our ineptitude continues. Lack of ample reservoirs to store monsoon inflows and dry winters put extra pressure on our aquifer. Our farmers and our urban water supply facilities pump huge amounts of precious groundwater. In Punjab alone, there are some 1.2m tube wells performing agricultural, urban and industrial duties. We are pumping far more than we are putting back into the aquifer. Experts say Pakistan has around 3 MAF to 4 MAF shortfall of groundwater discharge annually, and our aquifer is receding at an alarming rate. Rainwater harvesting and partially treated sewage lagoons for groundwater recharge are two available solutions but we are light years away from adopting these on a large scale.

Our agriculture sector’s affinity for flood irrigation is costing us dearly too. Not only are we wasting fresh water by adopting archaic irrigation methods, we are also registering the lowest per acre crop yields regionally.

All is not lost. We need swift action. Now that our national water policy has been formally approved, it should not collect dust in office cabinets. Our national and provincial water management bodies, local government bodies and public health and irrigation departments must commit themselves to implementing efficient water resource management.

For starters, the provinces should jettison political games and agree on building new water storages. Water experts say, the way our population is swelling we need a Tarbela-size reservoir every decade. Along with water policies we also need federal and provincial water commissions to monitor efficient water resource management at all levels. We also need to usher in a new regime of efficient water use in our cities, farms and industries. But let’s take the first step and build a new dam to store the monsoon surplus. Now.

The writer is Deputy Director, Outreach and Dissemination, Strategic Planning/Reform Unit, Punjab Irrigation Department.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2018