Pakistan needs improved groundwater management: report

Published January 25, 2021
A new World Bank report says that the Indus basin groundwater in aquifers in Pakistan is at least 80 times the volume of freshwater held in the country’s three biggest dams. —Saman Ghani Khan/File
A new World Bank report says that the Indus basin groundwater in aquifers in Pakistan is at least 80 times the volume of freshwater held in the country’s three biggest dams. —Saman Ghani Khan/File

ISLAMABAD: A new World Bank report says that the Indus basin groundwater in aquifers in Pakistan is at least 80 times the volume of freshwater held in the country’s three biggest dams, yet in 2020 Pakistan faced a severe groundwater crisis.

The report titled ‘Groundwater in Pakistan’s Indus Basin: Present and Future Prospects’ says Pakistan lacks a comprehensive, reliable system for measuring groundwater extractions and their impact on the resource base.

The limited investments in measurement, that have been made, have lacked coordination and been too sparse and infrequent to allow for comprehensive mapping and monitoring — the measurement or control of water quality even less so. Thus, the ability to steer groundwater use towards sustainability and tackle new challenges is compromised.

The report, released on Saturday, says in the face of rising population, the effects of climate change, and the considerable natural lag in groundwater response to management interventions, the failure to tackle these challenges is already impairing national water security and drinking water quality. Unchecked, they will lead to a sharp decrease in water security, rising costs for the treatment of drinking water, and a pathway to poverty for a significant number of the rural population, it says.

WB says supply of safe, usable groundwater is diminishing as a result of pollution, over-extraction and inappropriate irrigation practices

The decades of groundwater development in Pakistan that have elevated groundwater to its current significance have unfolded with minimal management or regulation of the resource. The supply of safe, usable groundwater is diminishing as a result of pollution, over-extraction, poor management of canal water, and inappropriate irrigation practices.

According to the report, despite decades of national and international experts predicting a burgeoning crisis and identifying key requirements to address these challenges, little attention has been given to them. As a result, depletion is curtailing feasible access to groundwater in Punjab, and waterlogging and salinity continue to threaten water and soil quality in Sindh.

Groundwater resources of Pakistan are poorly understood, both at the basin level and at the level of local administrative units where most water-related service delivery functions are vested. The existing knowledge base is sufficient, however, to paint a broad and static picture of aquifer characteristics along with its regional implications, but the limited scope and scale of groundwater measurement preclude the possibility of sophisticated groundwater management and regulation.

Waterlogging, depletion, and salinisation are shown to be linked problems that require a holistic management approach. This is for the management of not only water volumes but also water quality — salinity, as referred to earlier, and naturally occurring contaminants, such as arsenic and fluoride, and pollutants introduced by human activity.

Across the Indus basin in Pakistan, poor enforcement of environmental regulations, low investment in wastewater treatment, and unmanaged and unlicensed expansion of pumping infrastructure has contributed to an increase in groundwater contamination from industrial, domestic, and natural sources. Policy actions too have been tardily applied and are curative rather than preventive.

Renewable freshwater

Currently, the total renewable freshwater available per person in Pakistan is estimated to be 1,100 cubic metres per year. Although this is substantial, Pakistan is becoming increasingly water insecure as a result of the poor economic, social, and environmental outcomes it derives from its water resources, including groundwater.

Population growth, demographic changes, and climate change will only increase demand for water throughout the economy. Population growth alone will reduce freshwater availability per person to 900 cubic metres per year by 2050. Cumulatively, total projected demand will exceed available water supply by 2047, unless substantive sector reforms are undertaken, and substantial investments are made in demand management.

It is clear that, because of past mismanagement and anticipated future stresses, the present approach to groundwater in Pakistan is unsustainable. Failure to act immediately will further deteriorate groundwater quality and quantity, the effects of which will be felt for many generations and risk contributing to a decline in economic prosperity and health outcomes for the nation, the report warns.

Given the state of groundwater management in Pakistan and the country’s federal structure, interventions at multiple tiers are required. Based on the current understanding of the Indus basin aquifer and the challenges faced by Pakistan, management recommendations fall into four main areas: appoint provincial lead agencies and agree on scale of management; regulatory reform; interim management arrangements; and stakeholder or community engagement. Each of this requires consideration at various levels of policy, practice, and governance. Every action within each of these components represents an important advance along the roadmap to reform, the report says.

The groundwater management cannot progress in Pakistan without institutional accountability for it. As resource management responsibility is with the provinces, it is appropriate for accountability to rest with lead agencies at the provincial level.

Managing groundwater quality poses a significant challenge as it entails measuring and tracking the occurrence and source of contaminants, treating the water, or remediating the host aquifer. It is recommended that a risk-based approach be adopted to manage groundwater quality.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2021

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