With over 9 per cent share of the global groundwater withdrawals, Pakistan is the third-largest user of groundwater after India and the United States. Such immense withdrawals have placed it among the few countries whose groundwater withdrawals exceed the recharge rate — aquifers’ natural replenishment rate. As a result, groundwater reserves are rapidly depleting, threatening the sustainability of this precious natural resource.

Worryingly, with such high withdrawals, primarily for the irrigation of crops, Pakistan is also one of the top groundwater exporters in the world. It loses enormous amounts of water because of agro-food/agri-crops exports, especially of rice and sugar.

With each kilogram of rice export, Pakistan also indirectly exports around 5,000 litres of embedded water, which will no longer be available to the country for drinking, domestic, irrigation, or industrial purposes. Such embedded (hidden/virtual) water, which is contained in the products, especially in agro-food, has many important implications for the country’s sustainable economic growth and social development. But so far, these have gone unnoticed.

Water is becoming increasingly important in the globalising world. According to many experts, future wars will be fought over water. With this realisation, several countries have opted for a policy to outsource water-intensive products to other countries. “Water conservation through global trade” is now integral to their long-term planning.

Pakistan’s water consumption per unit of GDP is the world’s highest because of water-intensive industries

In agriculture, they import water-intensive crops and export high-value, less water-intensive crops. Such a policy enables countries to balance their increasing water demand while saving water for future generations.

With such an emerging international trade scenario, Pakistan needs to rethink its long-term export strategy from the angle of groundwater export, especially when it has become the world’s most water-intensive economy. Its water consumption per unit of GDP is the world’s highest because of low irrigation efficiency and greater reliance on water-intensive sectors like agriculture, textiles, and leather.

The situation is worrisome because Pakistan withdraws groundwater from the Indus Basin aquifer, which is now the world’s second most overstressed aquifer, as revealed by a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) survey.

Undeniably, our agro-food exports earn much-needed foreign exchange and reduce our growing trade imbalance, yet they cause enormous environmental and social fallouts for the rural and urban populace. Despite the colossal water loss caused by exports, there is little focus on tracing water footprints or accounting for water loss.

Due to excessive pumping and no groundwater recharging measures, the water table is rapidly decreasing. Generally, with a lower water table, the water quality deteriorates due to saltwater intrusion, which adversely affects the soil health as well as the quality of drinking water for the local population.

With the decrease in the water table, more energy (electricity and diesel) is required to pump water from the ground. It increases not only the cost of irrigation but also the country’s import bill of oil, gas, and coal. Moreover, it worsens the climate change crisis as well.

Rapid groundwater depletion is a complex issue that requires multi-dimensional strategies on several fronts. However, farm-level interventions can significantly reduce the severity of the issue. Those include: Crop-switching aimed at decreasing the weightage of water-intensive agro-food in the overall country’s exports. Improving the irrigation efficiency of the agriculture sector, which accounts for over 90pc of Pakistan’s water. Artificial recharging of groundwater.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s export base is quite narrow, with a limited number of products available for export. Rice is the largest food item in the country’s export list.

In addition, significant quantities of potato, onion, dates, mango, citrus, sesame, maise, and sugarcane molasses were also exported in 2021-22. Moreover, during 2011-2020, Pakistan exported six million tonnes of sugar extracted from the sugarcane crop.

Rice and sugarcane are the two most water-intensive crops grown on 3.34m and 1.165m hectares, respectively. One of the studies reveals that rice, sugarcane and wheat combined account for around 80pc of Punjab’s total groundwater withdrawals.

On the other hand, almost 76pc of Punjab’s cultivated land is irrigated by groundwater, either fully or partially (augmenting surface water). With such dependency on groundwater, its withdrawals are likely to increase further in the future because of the growing shortage of canal water caused by climate change and the shrinking storage capacity of dams.

While in the short term, it will be idealistic and impractical to cut off or decrease rice and sugar exports completely, there is a need to identify new exportable crops with low water requirements. Such crops can partially replace rice and sugarcane areas to the extent that Pakistan grows these crops only to fulfil the domestic needs for rice and sugar.

The agriculture sector of Pakistan uses more water compared with peer countries for the same amount of production because of poor irrigation efficiency caused by farmers’ limited knowledge and skills and their financial constraints to adopt high-efficiency irrigation solutions. In addition, the subsidised tariff for agricultural tubewells has also developed a tendency for indiscriminate groundwater pumping.

There is a dire need to improve irrigation efficiency, especially in rice and sugarcane crops, through proven technologies, which have yielded significant results in comparable countries.

Gleaning lessons from the experience and success stories of other countries, we can introduce artificial groundwater recharge technologies at the farm level that can help raise not only the water table but also solve the issue of drainage of excess rainwater in farms.

Considering the current socio-cultural context of rural areas of the country, it seems that policy instruments based on regulation and policing may not solve the issue of indiscriminate groundwater pumping. However, financial incentives for farmers can effectively reduce withdrawals (abstraction) to a level at least equal to the recharging rate that can ensure the sustainability of groundwater.

Khalid Wattoo is a farmer and consultant in the social sector.

Sara Mehmood is a researcher in forestry and environmental sciences.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 17th, 2022

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