PAKISTAN approved its first National Water Policy on April 24, 2018. Following this, a recent wave of discussions on social media seems to have brought the water crisis back to the forefront.
Many believe that the construction of the Kalabagh dam will solve Pakistan’s water crisis. The active water storage capacity of the Kalabagh dam is estimated to be 6.1 million acre-feet (MAF),whereas Pakistan is expected to face a demand-supply gap of approximately 83 MAF by 2025.
According to the United Nations Development Programme’s report, “The Vulnerability of Pakistan’s Water Sector to the Impacts of Climate Change”, Pakistan needs to build at least 13 dams having a water storage capacity equivalent to the Kalabagh dam.
Keeping this in mind, the National Water Policy is inadequate to address the country’s water issue as it is vague on many key aspects, technically unsound, and does not contain updated information about the state and quality of water resources.
The per capita water availability estimates, presented in the policy document, are derived from the old estimates of water availability in the country. Based on Pakistan’s total renewable water resources and population in 1951, the water availabilty was estimated to be 5,260 cubic metres per capita per year.
The policy is inadequate for addressing the water issue as it is vague on many key aspects, technically unsound, and does not contain updated information about the state and quality of water resources
The current per capita water availability estimates are about 1,000 cubic metres. However, Pakistan’s renewable water resources have decreased significantly. There has been a gradual decline in surface water flows and our groundwater depletion rate is one of the highest in the world.
Even the estimates of the total renewable water resources at 138.4 MAF suggest a water availiabity of 823 cubic metres per capita per year which is significantly lower than 1,000 cubic metres.
The situation is much worse than these estimates if we distinguish between water availability and water accessibility. The reason to do so is that the majority of the fresh water (both canal water and groundwater) is being polluted by wastewater.
According to an estimate, the total quantity of wastewater produced in Pakistan is 962,335 million gallons which ultimately finds its way to freshwater bodies and groundwater aquifers. Untreated wastewater makes much of the fresh water in eastern rivers and canals (especially in Ravi) inaccessible.
Pakistan is included in the list of top five countries which account for about 86 per cent of the global wastewater fed cropland, says a study published in IOPscience, a leading scientific research journal.
Of these countries China, Mexico and India treat 71pc, 54pc and 22pc of their urban wastewater, respectively, but Pakistan treats only 1.2pc of its urban wastewater. About 7.2m acres of land are being irrigated with untreated wastewater in Pakistan.
Currently, Pakistan extracts 50 MAF of groundwater which is mainly used for irrigation. Due to excessive pumping Pakistan’s groundwater abstraction rates have exceeded the annual recharge rate of 55 cubic kilometres per year.
Consequently, the groundwater tables are lowering rapidly in different parts of the country. Some hydrologists think that there could be a decline of 10-20 metres in the groundwater tables in the upper and the lower regions of the Rachna Doab in north-east Pakistan by 2025.
Despite this, Pakistan continues to exploit groundwater resources to grow and export water-intensive crops such as rice. Pakistan’s rice water productivity- at 0.45kg per cubic metre — is 55pc lower than the average water productivity of 1kg per cubic metre for rice in Asian countries.
Pakistan also exports rice at competitive prices in the international export market.A recent study reported that about 11pc of the global groundwater depletion is due to the international food trade.
The National Water Policy does not address the issue of growing and exporting water-intensive crops such as rice, cotton and sugarcane.Pakistan’s water resources face a number of challenges including over-extraction, contamination, and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and population growth, etc.
Population growth will worsen the crisis as on an average, we use 350 billion litres of surface water daily, which translates to 1,684 litres per capita per day. In less than half a month, we extract about 8.5 cubic kilometre of groundwater, which is higher than the active storage capacity of the Kalabagh dam.
Each Pakistani produces daily about 65 litres of wastewater which is not being recycled. This requires a massive public awareness campaign in the country on an immediate basis to create awareness about conservation measures and more comprehensive policies to address the water crisis effectively.
The writer is an assistant professor at the Institute of Agriculture Extension and Rural Development, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 19th, 2018