Water and population link

July 07, 2018

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THE alarm bells around Pakistan’s water crisis are growing louder, and with good reason. Water stress is upon us, impossible to ignore, whether it manifests in cities facing shortages even of drinking water, deficiencies in agriculture, poisoning of resources in many areas, or any other crippling form.

The last three months have unleashed animated debates on mass and social media about the government’s apparent failure to think ahead and complacency, and the lack of waterways and dams. Decision-makers are finally rattled. Seemingly in reaction, in the penultimate or last meeting of the Council of Common Interests, with three chief ministers in attendance, the government announced a National Water Policy, which came as a surprise, not only due to the haste in its passage, but also because it was a very rare instance of the provinces and federal government reaching consensus on an issue of national importance.

A reduction in fertility could markedly improve per capita water availability.

While it is good that everyone finally agrees on the need to act, the proposed solutions, once again, take the pet forms of better infrastructure, dams, waterways, canals, water plants, etc. In particular, a divisive debate has arisen overnight about the Kalabagh dam. Slightly more nuanced conversations do touch on changing behaviours, water conservation, better storage, community-based solutions, and the difficult topic of redistribution. But, sadly and shockingly, hardly anyone, including leading water and environment experts, are relating the emerging water crisis to the looming population number, which is the very basis for calculating where we are in terms of per capita water availability.

One of the most straightforward and perhaps oversimplified formulae for calculating scarcity or stress is by dividing the volume of water, a finite resource, with the population number. Unlike per capita income, we cannot expect water to increase — except of course with storage systems, etc. In fact, with recent changes in rainfall patterns, and construction of dams in India in the upper reaches of the Indus, overall water availability may actually be in decline. On the other hand, the denominator of population, which is relatively constant in countries that have reached replacement-level fertility, is still increasing exponentially in Pakistan.

Until 1981, we were water abundant at 2,123 cubic metres (m3) per capita. By the 1998 census, our population was already 132 million and growing at 2.6 per cent. Water availability was beginning to enter the stress levels of 1,351m3 per capita.

Subsequently, we assumed that growth rates had begun to decline, but the period after 2000 saw little change in fertility and population growth rates. The 2013 Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey showed that Pakistan’s fertility rate remained at 3.8 while other countries were registering record declines and reaching around 2.2. And in 2017, the new census indicates that the apocalyptic prediction has come true: we are in a state of water scarcity at 861m3. Had intercensal growth been 1.6pc, as projected under the best policy scenario, we would be at 1,000m3 today.

Yet, apart from the occasional passing reference, the issue of our still unbridled population growth is forgotten or put aside in discussions of the water crisis as something that just happened or is out there. This passive acquiescence, and the pain it evokes in the demographic community, are not new.

When the preliminary findings of the 2017 census were announced, the disturbing news that we were 207m — several million more than the most conservative fertility decline estimates made in 2010 had suggested — was swallowed easily by politicians, media, and planners, as if it had no relevance to the country’s present or future development outlook.

The political and media spotlight turned immediately towards political seats, finance shares, provincial leverage and shares. There was barely any concern for what the numbers mean in terms of providing the very basics of education, health, housing, and of course water to live!

With diminishing water resources and a growing population, the per capita availability of water will continue to decrease, impacting everything, even the health status of communities where water availability falls below 7.5 litres per person per day, which according to the World Health Organisation is the minimum necessary for maintaining hygiene and health. On the other hand, a reduction in fertility, achieved by preventing the million unwanted births taking place every year, could markedly improve per capita water availability.

It’s not as if these connections haven’t been highlighted before. Past population policies laid out many scenarios warning us of what might come in a few decades. The 2002 population policy acknowledged the need to expedite fertility decline to catch up with other nations. With regard to water, as far back as the late 1980s, when we were water abundant despite galloping population growth, Ayub Qutub warned us, as he documented deliberations for the National Conservation Strategy, that the abundance would not last. In 2013, the Population Council and UNFPA pointed out to political parties and media personalities across the board that Pakistani couples want fewer children, and that we must seize this critical opportunity to reduce fertility to manage emerging challenges. While political parties expressed concern, and even promised to include better access to birth spacing services in their manifestos, this obvious intervention failed to retain the attention it deserves.

Some basic facts need to be highlighted for politicians as they enter another election in a few weeks. Very simply, we cannot delink the water crisis from rapid and unsustainable population growth in Pakistan any more than we can delink the large out-of-school population from the ever-growing numbers of children who need to be put in school, or malnutrition from high fertility.

We cannot cry ourselves hoarse about water scarcity, about not achieving our basic rights of a universal primary education, about the world falling down without squarely facing our biggest national challenge. There should be nothing holding us back from action when even religious leaders and the most conservative elements concur that birth spacing is a positive maternal and child health intervention. The solution is utterly simple, the costs totally affordable, and people more than ready, even desperate, for change.

The writer is country director of the Population Council in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2018