THE World Water Day was observed earlier this week (March 22) across the globe, but not much was heard about it in Pakistan. The theme of the day this year was, ‘Groundwater: Making the invisible visible’. Groundwater has become invisible over the years, but its impact can be felt everywhere. Out of sight, under our feet, groundwater is a hidden treasure that enriches our lives.

Globally, climate change has caused an adverse impact on groundwater levels. Its crucial role as a life-sustaining resource is increasingly threatened not only by over-extraction and water-logging, but also by contamination. A truly sustainable world needs to define water as a precious resource that must be valued.

Pakistan is ranked 36th on the list of most water-stressed countries. Its per capita annual water availability dropped from 5,600 cubic metres in the 1950s to 1,017 cubic metres at present. It will soon become a water-scarce country if proper resource management is not done through legislative and institutional measures.

Groundwater is our main source of drinking water, and fulfils about 40 per cent needs related to irrigation water. Nearly 90pc water resources are allocated to needs of irrigation and agricultural sector, which contributes 25pc to the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs around 44pc of the national labour force.

Groundwater extraction was initiated not to supplement surface water resources, but to combat rising water tables and water-logging and salinity problems. The unregulated and uncontrolled use of groundwater has increased the extraction rate.

Surface water withdrawals account for about 74pc of the total surface water available, while groundwater withdrawal accounts for 83pc of total available renewable groundwater.

Groundwater management has been neglected on the pretext of its abundance. Unprecedented ground water exploitation has led to its depletion as well as the deterioration of the overall water quality. A continuous decline in groundwater table has been observed in many areas of Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan. Owing to excessive pumping, the downward gradients are increasing as well as inducing saltwater intrusion into fresh groundwater areas.

The problem of declining groundwater resources is likely to exacerbate with climate change and rural-urban migration.

Improving groundwater management is integral to Pakistan’s economic development. According to the World Bank report, Pakistan: Getting More from Water, without necessary reform and better demand management in the water sector, water scarcity will constrain Pakistan from reaching upper middle-income status by 2047.

For joint management of surface water and groundwater, the federal government is believed to drafting a five-year national groundwater management plan to provide a framework for coordinating groundwater stakeholders across Pakistan. The challenge is to implement and deepen these initial reforms and to create awareness about the need to conserve water for long-term sustainability of Pakistan’s vital groundwater resources.

Abu Rehan
Islamabad

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2022

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