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Short of water?

Updated June 28, 2018

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‘PAKISTAN will run out of water by 2025’ or ‘droughts of unprecedented proportions are going to hit the country within five to seven years’.

Really? How?

According USAID’s Factsheet 2017, Pakistan is now a food-surplus country. But this food surplus annually consumes 104 million acre feet (MAF) of water. In Pakistan’s Water Economy Running Dry, John Briscoe pointed out that wastage of water in Pakistan’s irrigation is one of the highest in the world. Indian Punjab produces 30 per cent more with the same quantity of water while California 50pc more. Sandra Postel pointed out in her 1992 book Last Oasis that irrigation efficiency can be improved by up to 50pc by using the available technologies. However, great strides have been made since the early 1990s and today’s water-saving technologies can enable our farmers to produce surplus food using less than 50 MAF of water.

According to international standards, 35 gallons per capita per day is enough for a healthy lifestyle. If we want to supply this amount of water to every citizen in the country, all we need is 12 MAF. Including the generally accepted 30pc losses in water supply systems, the domestic requirement for 207 million individuals here does not exceed 17 MAF.

Our problem lies in the pattern of consumption.

Pakistan’s industrial consumption is under 10 MAF. So, the actual water requirement to fulfil all domestic, industrial and food security needs is less than 77 MAF, whereas the country’s river flows alone contribute an average of 145 MAF of water annually.

We are neither water deficient nor water scarce.

There is general apprehension that climate change will reduce our natural water supply; however, the data obtained from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the UK shows that the country’s rainfall has not depleted in the past 115 years. Actually, there is a rising trend.

The resource is in abundance. The problem lies in our consumptive patterns; 104 MAF goes into irrigation, out of which 54 MAF is preventable wastage — if we invest in efficient irrigation practices.

The urban and industrial sectors remain poorly served despite manageable requirements of 27 MAF or thereabouts. In most cities, domestic and industrial needs can be met by investments in proper aquifer management, prevention of pollution in aquifers and streams, correct handling of storm water run-off, and appropriate disposal of sewerage effluents.

Investment in the irrigation, urban and industrial sectors will not only lead to water security in these sectors but also synergistically fix the problems of water logging and salinity, while eliminating stagnant pools that are a breeding ground for disease-carrying vectors. Natural water courses which have currently turned into sewage drains will change from the eyesores they currently are to the assets they once were, and many environmental benefits will become evident.

Then why all this scaremongering?

The first set of beneficiaries of such an attitude are poorly funded ‘scientific’ organisations struggling to persuade funding agencies to give ‘research’ money for their ‘urgent’ studies that would prevent the ‘looming doom’. When funds are acquired, they can justify their existence, and their so-called scholars can add the names of a few publications to their CVs.

The next set of beneficiaries are the ‘donors’ feeding the funding agencies. If a ‘looming doom’ successfully translates into a mega project, the ‘donors’ are more than compensated by the business deals that come up — hefty construction contracts, expensive machine, and large material supplies. The bigger the scare, the bigger the project and the bigger the dividends.

Scaremon­ger­ing, however, skews the in­­vestment prio­­­­rities.

Anxiety and panic are generally followed by tricky but believable so-called solutions focusing on large infrastructure investments through borrowed money. For example, instead of targeting the wastage of 54 MAF in the irrigation sector, the focus is on damming and diverting the 20-odd MAF of water that makes it to the Indus delta, while there is spending in billions of dollars on projects such as dams — completely ignoring the impact of erosion of the river delta and the silting of dams (as happened in the case of the Mangla and Tarbela dams), and exacerbating issues such as wastage in the irrigation sector, water-logging, salinity, etc.

Proper aquifer management, improving irrigation efficiency and checking pollution do not involve very large sums of money and expensive contracts and are sustainable in the long run.

Dependence on the wrong advice and foreign loans is no more an option. We should understand our own system, our strengths and believe in ourselves to get out of the quagmire we are in. It is time to embrace perpetual sustainability and stop being fooled by investment modules that contribute to scaremongering.

The writer is an expert in hydrology and water resources.

Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2018