Invisible resource

Published July 20, 2021
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

IN school we were repeatedly told that two-thirds of the earth’s surface was water. The geography teacher would draw the globe, mark the continents and then colour the rest of the circle blue denoting water. Next we were told about glaciers that store huge amounts of freshwater. But nobody taught us that, invisible to us, there was even more water — groundwater — crammed between rock and sediment in the form of massive aquifers hundreds of feet below.

Even water managers and hydrologists who talk about harnessing and diverting surface water through building large and small infrastructure projects have failed to deliberate on the virtues, and therefore protection, of groundwater. In fact, experts acknowledge their understanding of groundwater, as compared to surface water systems, is limited.

Groundwater is indeed a “most poorly understood” resource in a country where water is otherwise a “hotly debated” subject, stated a recent World Bank report Groundwater in Pakistan’s Indus Basin: Present and Future Prospects. With an estimated 10,000 billion cubic metres of water in the Indus Basic aquifer, Pakistan has at least 80 times more water underneath than its three biggest dams and thus required “deliberative and careful management” according to Basharat Saeed, one of the report’s authors and a water resources specialist at the bank.

A runaway population, expanding agriculture and industry, climate variability and water quality are big threats to groundwater. Recently, lawmakers were briefed on the need for legislation regarding its abstraction. Scarce and depleting resources require better regulation, they were told by water experts.

Groundwater is indeed ‘most poorly understood’.

Today, Pakistan stands fourth in groundwater abstraction after India, China and the US. The Indus aquifer is the second-most overstressed aquifer in the world. Weak implementation of environmental laws, low investment in wastewater treatment, and unmanaged, unlicensed expansion of pumping infrastructure have turned pristine water toxic — 70 per cent of this is drunk by Pakistanis. Up to two-thirds of groundwater recharge in Punjab and Sindh is seepage from the surface irrigation system. But while over-abstraction is causing rapid depletion of groundwater (over 30,000 square kilometres of irrigated land in Punjab and Balochistan), more than 56,000 sq km of fertile land in Sindh is waterlogged.

Pakistan’s 2018 National Water Policy has tried to address the issue of over-abstraction. But there seems to be little progress. However, Balochistan has had a Groundwater Rights Administration Ordinance since 1978 and the Balochistan Groundwater Rights Administration Rules, 2014. Both remain unimplemented.

The more recent groundwater laws in Punjab (2019) and KP (2020), explained legal expert Ahmad Rafay Alam, have taken water out of the riparian doctrine and brought it to the 21st century to make it obligatory for all to use this resource sustainably. These may lead to end-of-glory days for those who took cover for over-abstraction under the colonial legislation of the Indian Easements Act of 1882, especially for agriculture. For now, these laws are lifeless. The implementing authorities and the commissions to be set up have either not been formed, remain non-functional or were never convened.

It is time legislators in Sindh and Balochistan also drafted their respective water laws. But since water characteristics and abstraction levels vary from region to region, policymakers should be mindful of what is suited to each province’s context instead of copy-pasting the law as in KP’s case.

The Punjab law (and thus the KP law) puts huge responsibility on the commission that must ensure quality-standard water and sewerage services, prevent wastage and misuse, give policy direction, etc. It must have political and administrative representation from seven different departments and ministries. The provincial authorities are the enforcers of all orders pertaining to water and sewerage (including pricing, approving assignments of water and sewerage services, non-payment issues) and resolve disputes around the same eg in irrigation, plumbing, private water tankers etc.

Along with laws, getting frequent, regular and reliable data for groundwater levels and salinity is important to understand short-term fluctuations as it is hard to plan if you do not know how much water is being used, said Saeed. Currently, these readings are taken twice a year, pre- and post-monsoon, and at just the canal command areas of Punjab. Sindh has stopped this exercise altogether.

But getting it right may take time. As pointed out by Dr Imran Khalid at WWF-Pakistan’s governance and policy section, “Given the scope and scale of the problem and lack of capacities within the relevant departments it is difficult to expect wholesale changes in our collective attitudes towards groundwater management.”

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2021

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