When the well is dry, we know the worth of water — Benjamin Franklin.

Climate change continues to be one of the most important global issues confronting the international community. For Pakistan, it is a reality we can no longer ignore. Climate change is currently the biggest unmitigated external risk to the water sector. Pakistan is already categorised as one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, where supply is hovering around 1017 cubic meters per capita.

Climate change is not expected to greatly alter average water availability over the coming decades, but inflows will become more variable, increasing the severity of floods and droughts. Climate warming is expected to drive water demands up to 15 per cent by 2047, in addition to the demand increases from population and economic growth.

Water security is further undermined by poor water resource management and poor water service delivery. Pakistan has a storage capacity of 30 days, whereas more than 70pc Pakistanis do not have access to safe drinking water. More than 53,000 children in Pakistan die annually from diarrhoea due to poor water quality.

By current projections, the per capita availability of water will decline to a mere 800 m3 by 2025. In this critical situation, improved water governance, management and conservation will not only play a critical role in Pakistan’s economic development, food security, energy needs and health requirements, but will also lead to environmental sustainability.

A report issued by World Bank warns Pakistan against the business as usual (BAU) water management approach. How the country deals with this impending water crisis, and the speed at which it does, will have a significant impact on the country’s economic development and standard of living for its people.

For a country looming toward an acute water crisis by 2025, there seems to be a complete lack of interest or initiatives from the government. From major infrastructure projects in the form of desalinisation plants and wastewater management systems to supplying water to all the urban areas of Pakistan and finally better water management in agriculture, there is a sense of urgency in each of these projects.

Providing a safe and reliable water supply to the ever-growing urban population remains a huge challenge. The scarcity of water supply in Karachi is not just a combination of increased demand due to massive urban migration followed by the natural dwindling of water in the lower Indus delta, but rather this scarcity is also the result of inequitable distribution of water. Where instead of working together to manage resources more efficiently, different actors try and compete for power over these vital human needs.

Thus, as a result, where some parts of Karachi are inundated with a water supply at minimal cost, other areas are paying a premium just to get access to this basic need. This results in massive inequality in both the supply of water and the cost at which its supplied to citizens living in different parts of the city.

Officially Pakistan has the lowest water tariffs as compared to the whole of Asia. Water and sanitation agencies responsible for 44pc of water and sanitation activities are only able to recover between 40pc to 60pc of their operation and management costs as best. Water governance in Pakistan needs to reevaluate its National Water Policy and pay special attention to water storage and management.

Although agriculture activities use up to 95pc of Pakistan’s available water, it is largely untaxed, where the government recovers only a quarter of annual operating and maintenance costs. Moreover, water is inefficiently utilised in the agriculture sector using the anarchic flood irrigation system, which not only puts a heavy burden on water resources, it also strips away soil fertility making Pakistan’s yield per acre one of the lowest in the world.

The government needs to reevaluate agriculture policies using hybrid seeds, growing produce that does not require too much water, investing in drip irrigation and solar power operated agricultural machinery.

Pakistani authorities need to step up their efforts and focus on water storage and management along with an independent and transparent assessment of water inflow and outflow in every province. More so there needs to be a reorganisation of the incentive structure when it comes to water.

The public-private partnership model has been successful in a host of infrastructure projects in the country and the same perhaps needs to be done for water. The Green Banking Guidelines issued by the State Bank of Pakistan provide incentives for investment in green structures which does include water management as an area of focus.

On the private sector side, industry leaders have taken a key interest in actively reducing their water consumption. Nestle Pakistan, Soorty Enterprises and a few other organisations have taken a leading role and gotten certified by the Alliance for Water Stewardship Standards 1.0, the first global framework that promotes sustainable use of freshwater.

This allows companies to make an action plan with targeted approaches to improve, incentivise and recognise responsible water use, including stakeholder engagement within their supply chain. All these actions will help corporations become more objective-driven, rising to the challenge and taking charge of fixing this impending water crisis.

The writer works in The Pakistan Business Council, Center of Excellence in Responsible Business as a Research Analyst — Sustainability and Social Impact

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 25th, 2022

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