This article was published in Arab News on May 17, 2022 and is available at the following link
At the time of its creation in 1947, Pakistan was fortunate to have abundant water resources with the mighty river Indus and five other tributary rivers forming the backbone of an immaculately developed irrigation network of barrages, headworks and canals. Pakistan had to cede its rights over three rivers to India under the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) signed in 1960 by India, Pakistan and the World Bank. Despite the loss of this sizeable chunk of water, Pakistan enjoyed a per capita availability of over 5,000 cubic metres of water per year until 1962– which placed the country among the water-abundant countries.
As the population grew and water demand increased with time, water management infrastructure inherited from the British and constructed under IWT, could not keep pace and water availability gradually declined. Pakistan joined the ‘water stressed countries’ around 2002 when its water availability dropped below the threshold of 1,700 cubic metres per capita per year. The downward trend has continued and Pakistan already seems to have joined the unenviable list of water-scarce countries as water availability has gone to about 1,000 cubic metres per capita per day. Pakistan, according to the ‘National Water Stress Ranking’ of Water Resources Institute, is now among the world’s 17 most water-stressed countries.
The present water crisis therefore, is not a sudden development and we had sufficient time and advance notice to stem the tide. It is true that the gravity of the crisis keeps fluctuating from year to year ranging from devastating floods when excessive snowfall and rainfall is received, to droughts when their quantum reduces to a bare minimum. The current drought-like conditions were forecasted by experts months ago because the country had received 26% less snowfall last winter compared to the average of previous years. Similarly, Pakistan received very little rain in the past few months. The temperatures in the north of the country slowed the melting of the snow and glaciers. An aggregate of these factors led to dry rivers and empty reservoirs in this season which, of course, carries serious consequences like crop failure and poor yields. The situation is so precarious that even livestock is not getting enough water and vegetation, leading to reports of dying cattle. Less snow and rain also means less recharge of the groundwater leading to further lowering of the underground water table in the days to come, making it even more difficult and expensive to extract groundwater.
This state of affairs is alarming, but even more alarming is the lack of an adequate response to the crisis by successive governments in Pakistan. The real crisis is, therefore, the crisis of governance which has not allowed the governments to find ways to address the water crisis.
Having adequate capacity of water reservoirs is very important for a country like Pakistan, which receives 60% of its yearly rain during 3 monsoon months and flood water in the river ends up in the Arabian sea. Storage capacity in 3 major reservoirs in Pakistan is only 9% of average annual flow against a world average of about 40%. It was common knowledge that the capacity of our water reservoirs was depleting because of silting. Even if the existing reservoirs were not depleting, we needed more reservoirs because of the increasing water demand. Sadly, successive Pakistani governments failed to develop inter-provincial consensus to construct new reservoirs with the result that around 29 million acre-feet of floodwater is wasted every year because we do not have storage capacity.
Many countries have developed water conservation techniques. Israel, itself a water-stressed country, is considered a pioneer in water conservation. Its extensive use of a most modern version of drip irrigation has resulted in huge savings in water. Both Israel and Singapore are also leading the world in meeting 25% and 40% of their irrigation demands respectively by reusing treated wastewater. Pakistan has not even embarked on this course.
Pakistan’s agriculture sector, which consumes about 95% of the total available water, still uses primitive and wasteful irrigation methods such as flooding, with the result that merely 39% of the water is actually used in the farms and 61% is lost during conveyance through canal system and during application.
Despite these lapses and the looming crisis, the national parliament, provincial assemblies and their relevant standing committees hardly debated the issue or held the government to account for its inaction. Resolution of water issues doesn’t figure in government policy narrative. Looking at the enormity of the challenge and lack of seriousness on the part of the government and legislatures to face it, one tends to question whether it is really a water crisis or a crisis created by poor governance.