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How Pakistan wastes its water

Updated August 26, 2018

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By: Syed Muhammad Abubakar

The year 2025 has been marked as the year when Pakistan — if it doesn’t mend its ways soon — will turn from a “water-stressed” country to a “water-scarce” country. Warnings about water running out have been issued separately by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR). And as the alarm bells began to ring, the chief justice of Pakistan launched a campaign to build the Diamer Bhasha and Mohmand Dam. In his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Imran Khan, too, has announced his backing for the plan.

Whether a single dam is the panacea to all of Pakistan’s water woes is, of course, questionable.

Pakistan is now a severely water-stressed country. But while everyone is vocally concerned about the scarcity of water and obsessed with constructing large dams, we continue to squander the resource we already have

Consider the facts: per capita surface water availability of 5,260 cubic metres per year in 1951 turned into around 1,000 cubic metres in 2016. This is likely to further drop to about 860 cubic meters by 2025. The PCRWR describe that Pakistan reached the “water stress line” in 1990 and crossed the “water scarcity line” in 2005.

The Indus river system receives an annual influx of about 134.8 million acre feet (MAF) of water. The mean annual rainfall ranges from less than 100 millimetres to over 750 millimetres. Surface water comprises glacial melt up to 41 percent, snowmelt up to 22 percent and rainfall 27 percent.

In terms of groundwater, Pakistan is currently extracting 50 MAF from underground aquifers — this has already crossed the sustainable limit of safe yield. The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) enabled Pakistan to enhance water availability at canal headworks to about 104 MAF through construction of dams. However, this has decreased due to increased siltation.

Pakistan’s water woes can largely be bifurcated into issues of quality and quantity. The water coming into our systems over the past decades hasn’t changed much. But demand has soared due to an exponential rise in population. Existing reservoirs’ storage capacity cannot sustain this population boom while its capacity has also been reduced over the years.

Meanwhile, the water reaching the end user has also decreased due to further losses along the way. Our water management practices are highly inefficient — one illustration is how freshwater is used for irrigation purposes. The kind of crops we grow — rice and sugarcane, for example — and the way we irrigate them isn’t sustainable, either.

Because many people’s livelihoods are tied to growing more rice and more sugarcane, these crops will remain popular. Without any education or awareness about how not to waste water or how to utilise efficient irrigation methods, the wastage will continue.

While doomsday is just seven years away, it took over 70 years for Pakistan to draw up its first-ever National Water Policy (NWP), approved in April this year. The policy is still riddled with some significant gaps but at least, it lays out a few principles that ought to be adhered to. But in some ways, it is merely a compilation of suggestions. Water sustains life, society and the economy, and therefore, the scope of the crisis involves many actors and solutions need to be integrated. A major rethink is required at all levels.

Hell or high water

The Pakistan Economic Survey, 2017-2018 (prepared by the Ministry of Finance) details the state of the economy over the past year. It announces that the agriculture sector recorded a “remarkable” growth of 3.81 percent (as opposed to its targeted growth of 3.5 percent). The high water-need crops of rice (8.65 percent growth) and sugarcane (7.45 percent) both surpassed their respective production targets for 2017-18.

Prosperity brought by high water-need crops has meant that more farmers have preferred planting more rice and sugarcane.

The Pakistan Economic Survey, 2017-2018 notes that while rice was sown over 2,724 thousand hectares last year, it rose to 2,899 thousand hectares this year. “[H]igher domestic prices and availability of inputs on subsidised rates, good advisory along with increase in export,” according to the survey, contributed to more land being used to grow rice. This 6.4 percent increase ultimately yielded a production high of 7,442 thousand tonnes. Last year, 6,849 thousand tonnes of rice were produced in Pakistan.

The survey also shows that sugarcane was cultivated on an area of 1,313 thousand hectares, an increase on last year’s area of 1,218 thousand hectares. “[G]ood economic return encouraged the growers to bring more area under cultivation and [so did] comparatively timely payments from sugar mills last year,” explains the survey. This 7.8 percent rise in acreage translated into a 7.4 percent hike in production: from 75.482 million tonnes to 81.102 million tonnes.

There is a flip side, however.

More water is utilised in growing these water-intensive crops. For instance, sugarcane requires 1,500-2,500mm of rainfall (or water from other sources) to complete the growth cycle. In other words, to produce a kilo of sugarcane, between 1,500 and 3,000 litres of water are utilised. Similarly, at 0.45 kilograms per cubic metre, Pakistan’s rice water productivity is 55 percent lower than the average water productivity of one kilogramme per cubic metre for rice in Asian countries.

Because many people’s livelihoods are tied to growing more rice and more sugarcane, these crops will remain popular. Without any education or awareness about how not to waste water or how to utilise efficient irrigation methods, the wastage will continue.

Policy versus reality

It follows, therefore, that a country tethering on the edge of water scarcity ought to de-incentivise the growing of water-intensive crops. In practice, this means convincing the farmers that they will not be hit by a financial loss were they to switch to other crops.

The NWP acknowledges that irrigated agriculture is the backbone of the economy and consumes around 95 percent of the water resources. Furthermore, around one million tube wells in the country pump about 55 MAF of underground water for irrigation, which is 20 percent more than what’s available from canals — signalling how highly water-intensive the agriculture sector is. This is all unsustainable.

On the other hand, while there is great water wastage in the rural sector, providing potable water to the cities has become a challenge. One of the more achievable targets set by the NWP is the access to clean and safe drinking water and sanitation facilities for all. Towards that end, the policy has also urged the promotion of greater urban water management and revision of urban water tariffs. It also encourages enhancing recovery and reducing system losses, treatment of industrial effluents and provision of sustainable supply of water for everyone.

But it is still the agricultural sector whose water utilisation needs to be under the microscope. Till now, the policy seems divorced from the financial compulsions of those whose livelihoods are associated with the agricultural sector.

Dr Pervaiz Amir, director of the Pakistan Water Partnership (PWP) believes that policies are designed and implemented for the people and the civil society should have been engaged in debates and discussions towards this end.

“Balochistan has already prepared its water policy whereas Punjab and Sindh are working on theirs,” explains Dr Amir. “It is very important that the provincial policies are congruent and must not be in conflict with the national water policy of Pakistan.”

For him, the federal water ministry is weak and there is an urgent need to strengthen Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda).

“Instead of reviving old horses, a better option is to establish a new institution which has a diverse set of experts, not just engineers,” he adds.

The PWP chief points out that the policy fails to explain the most important question of where the resources will come from. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is one option; the Chinese are already operating a plant to provide potable water to their engineers working in water-scarce Gwadar. But will such measures have broader utility?

“Through CPEC, investments are going to increase,” continues Dr Amir, “and the question about how CPEC is going to integrate with water demands immediate attention. We should know the supply and demand side.”

Tahir Rasheed, CEO of the South Punjab Forest Company (SPFC), also laments the absence of stakeholder consultations in all provinces, including Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. He sees the need for the water policy to be linked with national, regional and international commitments such as Pakistan’s Vision 2025 and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Integrated watershed management should be promoted,” says Rasheed, “including ecological conservation practices in uphill watersheds, by exploring the possibility of joint watershed management of trans-boundary catchment areas with neighbouring countries. The policy is also silent on reactivating centuries-old traditional wisdom of water management and use of tools such as Rodh Koi system, Sailaba, Karez systems, etc. It should also address the trans-boundary water pollution aspect, on which even the Indus Waters Treaty is silent.”

Dr Tariq Banuri, the founding executive director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), a senior climate expert and currently heading the Higher Education Commission (HEC) as its chairman, agrees that Pakistan is wasting its water resources due to inefficient consumption patterns and negligible recycling.

When asked if the water policy will help address the indiscriminate wastage of this precious resource, he said: “Our systems are inefficient. The National Water Policy does spell a range of issues with respect to water but it doesn’t have details that can help to operationalise it. Its strategic and operational steps are not devised as yet. The environmental aspect of water in sustaining the environment has not been recognised in the policy either.”

Citizens from the upscale locality of Clifton protest the absence of potable water and the monopoly of the ‘tanker mafia’ | Shutterstock
Citizens from the upscale locality of Clifton protest the absence of potable water and the monopoly of the ‘tanker mafia’ | Shutterstock

Banuri explains that population growth has played a major role in decreasing the available amount of water per person and clearly shows that the lower riparian will not be able to receive their due share.

“The existing water system is actually on first-come-first-serve basis and this is not useful,” he says. “The water policy does recognise it but its details have not been worked out as yet.”

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, CEO of the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD)-Pakistan and a senior water expert, termed water a provincial matter and urged the need for a national-level framework that acts as a guiding tool for provinces.

“The water policy is an enabling document,” comments Sheikh, “which will lead to the establishment of national level water institutions, and unless the institutions are endowed and empowered, we won’t be able to achieve desirable results.”

Young men draw water for home use from a school pipe | Shutterstock
Young men draw water for home use from a school pipe | Shutterstock

Ali urged the federal government to earnestly address the reservations of the provinces concerning the water policy and also informed that the policy framework will make an overdue start.

“The policy will require sectoral plans and unless they are developed for key departments, things won’t go very far. First of all, there should be an overall implementation plan and then sectoral implementation plans should be developed for agriculture, climate, energy and other sectors,” sums up Ali.

While experts have termed the policy a step in the right direction, they have also recommended some measures that will make it further inclusive and bridge possible gaps. Now that the policy has been approved, the government must work aggressively to implement it in letter and in spirit if it is serious to address the water crisis that the entire nation is grappling with.

Syed Muhammad Abubakar is an environmental journalist who works on climate change, water, deforestation, food security and sustainable development. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar


Perusing the policy

By: Syed Muhammad Abubakar

The National Water Policy (NWP) revolves around the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and has strategically prioritised some principles, including conservation and efficiency of water resources, trying to deal with erratic rainfall patterns, increase in water storage, seawater utilisation and other key areas.

Furthermore, the policy has prioritised various water uses with the foremost attention to drinking and sanitation, followed by irrigation, including land reclamation, livestock, fisheries and wildlife, hydropower, industry and mining, environment, river systems, wetlands, aquatic life, forestry and recreation.

The NWP also urges the adoption of the principles of integrated planning along with water resources planning, conservation measures to upgrade the existing resources, development of water resources, detailed assessment of climatic impacts on water resources, priority irrigation infrastructure for water-scarce areas, special preference to projects planned for less developed regions and compensation for the implementation of water-sector projects.

The policy emphasises on maintaining the environmental integrity of the river basin, afforestation, ensuring environmental flows, adoption of a national wetland management plan, development of water bodies and increased research to address salinity.

Water conservation is given special focus along with construction of new dams and emphasisis on subsurface dams, and also recharging the groundwater during floods.

Most importantly, the policy has documented the impacts of climate change and warns that unprecedented climate change can lead to extreme weather events adversely affecting the water resources of the country. In this regard, the policy calls for mitigating the climatic impacts and synchronising it with the National Climate Change Policy of 2012.

To ensure adequate sharing of water resources with neighbouring countries, the policy calls for working out a mechanism for sharing of trans-boundary aquifers and joint watershed management, conducting studies to evaluate the impacts of developments in the upper catchment (India) of western rivers in the lower catchment (Pakistan) and ensuring environmental flows.

For the agriculture sector, the policy has called for pursuing the concept of “more crop per drop [of water]” along with a national plan for implementation of improved irrigation practices and legislating to ban flood irrigation across the country. The policy also calls for reforms in the agriculture sector to conserve the water resources. It also incentivises the use of marginal quality of groundwater for salt-tolerant crops, using treated sewage for non-edible crops and taking measures to enhance the water charges realistically to meet the operation and maintenance cost and ensuring long-term sustainability.

For rain-fed agriculture, the policy advocates moisture conservation and rainwater harvesting, solar pumping in shallow groundwater areas, constructing rainwater harvesting ponds and mini dams in rain-fed areas, and promoting water-efficient crops to promote sustainability.

The accelerated development of hydropower is treated as a high-priority objective, according to the NWP. Furthermore, to recover the water that is lost while being supplied to agricultural fields, the policy proposes some of the targets for 2018-2030, which include reduction of up to 33 percent in the lost 46 MAF river flows (out of 134.8 MAF) through the lining of water courses and construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam, along with other dams. The policy proposes to increase at least 30 percent in the efficiency of water use through various measures.

To effectively address the looming water crisis, increased allocations in the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) for the water sector shall be made. It must be noted that in 2017-18, the federal PSDP allocated only 3.7 percent i.e. 36.75 billion rupees for the water sector — the lowest in two decades.

The NWP covers the capacity-building component comprehensively with a focus on integrated management of water resources, capacity-building of all water-related public-sector organisations and establishment of new institutions at various levels.

The policy also proposes the adoption and strengthening of National Water Council (NWC) with the Prime Minister of Pakistan as its chairman, and to have representation of ministers and officials from various ministries, private-sector experts and others.

The NWP also urges to upgrade and improve the capacity of Wapda to plan, design and undertake feasibility studies and implement hydroelectric projects. It is proposed in the NWP to establish groundwater authorities in each province which will help to conserve groundwater.

The water policy calls effective water management in industrial uses followed by strong emphasis on groundwater conservation, which includes its monitoring and preparation of budgets, sustainable extraction and restricting over-extraction along with other measures. The policy categorically mentions that the Constitution of Pakistan has given the provinces the right over the rivers that fall within their boundaries and also that every public or private entity has the right to this resource. Active stakeholders’ consultation and participation at all levels shall be sought and community participation to be promoted, according to the policy. The NWP urges to build sustainable infrastructure and its subsequent maintenance to conserve the water resources.

To manage water-related hazards, flood management is given due priority in the water policy, including the preparation of flood protection plans, promoting sustainable land use, floodplain mapping to restrict permanent settlements in flood-risk areas, promoting disaster risk reduction, construction of additional flood protection facilities, hill torrent management, community-based flood disaster management initiatives, urban storm management, removing floodplain encroachments, drought management, addressing waterlogging, salinity and sea intrusion, water quality management, information management, public awareness through media, inculcating the message of water conservation in syllabi and research and development.

The policy ensures that the cost for delivering water shall be recovered and free-of-cost water shall be provided for environmental and ecological needs to maintain the ecological balance. As the population of the country has grown exponentially leading to increased water demand, the policy urges to create appropriate action plans to manage these increases.


The case for rainwater harvesting

By: Shanaz Ramzi

The warning signs are all there: Lahore’s infrastructure was tested to the limits, and in some cases even collapsed, as heavy rainfall lashed the provincial capital of Punjab in the last week of June. Much of the rainwater was wasted as drainage systems in Lahore — or, for that matter, other cities in the country — seem virtually non-existent. No water could be stored for use, neither for home use nor for use for public services. Are we, as a nation, complicit in criminally wasting water when there isn’t even enough for consumption?

According to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in another seven years, Pakistan is likely to run dry. Considering that water demand is constantly on the rise owing to population increase, there is constant degradation of water quality, rise in cost of supply and maintenance infrastructure, and minimal groundwater recharging with depletion of water levels.

There is little doubt that the issue of water scarcity needs to be dealt with on war footing and one method to do so is to harvest rainwater. In fact, rainwater harvesting (RWH) is now an established technique of collecting and storing rainwater into natural reservoirs or tanks. And one of the most common ways to do so is rooftop harvesting — a method that relies on citizens to be proactive and not rely on the government for help.

In essence, whenever there are rains, the flow of rainwater is intercepted and directed to a storage area. Studies show that 30 to 45 percent of water usage in urban areas is for washing, gardening, vehicle washing, and in affluent areas up to 20 percent is used for flushing WCs, and this usage can easily be met through RWH. Stored rainwater could be used to plant trees and for soil regeneration, among other things.

All that needs to be done is to connect the drainage pipe from the roof to a drum below — if the pipe drains out into a cemented portion of the house — where the water can collect. The drum, in turn, should have a pipe connected to it that drains the collected water into an aquifer pit dug in the garden or, if there is no garden, then into a tank made for the purpose in a concrete portion of the house, or directly into a pit, if it drains into the garden.

According to architect and conservationist Yasmeen Lari, aquifer pits that are one to two metres wide and two to three metres deep are sufficient to meet storage requirements of houses with a 100-square-metre roof. To store potable water, the base should have a layer of boulders five to 20 centimetres in size, with five to 10 millimetres of gravel and 1.5-2mm graded coarse sand on top. This will allow filtration of rainwater. For smaller roofs, the pits could be filled with brick bats. A fine mesh should be placed on top to avoid leaves, insects, sand and other impurities from falling in.

If the tank is being used to store water for domestic consumption, a tap could be installed, and the water could be used directly to water the garden or for washing cars. For other domestic use, such as for flush systems, a separate pipe would have to be installed. In cases where houses, or even buildings, are still under construction, it is imperative that these tanks be built as part of the floor plan, as they are the need of the hour.

Even with low rainfall, RWH can lead to saving substantial quantities of water that can be used for drinking as well as for non-potable use such as domestic, indoor plantation and agriculture as well as for aquifer replenishment.

Storing rainwater serves a dual purpose, as mentioned earlier, as it also helps prevent flash floods. Usually in Pakistan, runoff from roofs adds to the runoffs from pavements and hard surfaces. This means that streets and lanes get inundated as do storm water nullahs (many of which tend to be blocked with debris or trash). Even if they could be cleared, they would hardly be able to carry the enormous quantity of water flowing from roofs, pavements and other hard surfaces.

This means that the runoff from pavements must be harvested as well. In order to avoid flooding, street water must not be allowed to enter the drainage system. Instead, catchment areas should be created so that water is trapped in collection devices, such as storage tanks, deep V-shaped trenches, disused pits and tube wells.

Perhaps the notion of rainwater harvesting is uncharted territory in Pakistan. But, in many countries, it is mandatory to collect rainwater, especially in all new developments. Take Central American countries, for example, where by law storage tanks have to be provided in all constructions to store a minimum of 400 litres of rainwater per square metre of roof area. Perhaps this is also the future for Pakistan, where the destruction caused by flash floods affects stability of structures and grinds life to a halt.

The writer is a freelance journalist.
She tweets @ShanazRamzi

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 26th, 2018