A ray of hope for a water-scarce Pakistan

The 37th meeting of the Council of Common Interest (CCI), held at the Prime Minister Office on 24th of April, brought good news for the water-scarce country of Pakistan. It was the unanimous approval of the country’s first-ever National Water Policy (NWP) that was signed by the prime minister and the four chief ministers with a pledge of commitment. Besides pledging to take steps to control the water crisis, the federation and provinces also signed a charter to announce a water emergency in the country. The policy includes water uses and allocation of priorities, integrated planning for development and use of water resources, environmental integrity of the basin, impact of climate change, trans-boundary water sharing, irrigated and rain-fed agriculture, drinking water and sanitation, hydropower and groundwater among other water key pointers.

A number of studies and reports by various institutions have confirmed that Pakistan is in an increasingly precarious situation in terms of water resources. With rapidly growing population, Pakistan is heading toward a situation of water shortage and by corollary, a threat of food insecurity. Per capita surface water availability has declined from 5,260 cubic metres per year in 1951 to around 1,000 cubic metres in 2016. This quantity is likely to further drop to about 860 cubic metres by 2025 marking our transition from a “water stressed” to a “water scarce” country. This is partly because any crisis that is creeping slowly does not normally attract high–level political attention. However, after months of dillydallying on this issue of critical importance, the federal government and four provincial governments have unanimously approved a National Water Policy. Following are some important excerpts from the NWP draft:

Policy Objectives

The National Water Policy lays down a broad policy framework and set of principles for water security on the basis of which the Provincial Governments can formulate their respective Master Plans and projects for water conservation, water development and water management.

The National Water Policy is based on the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management primarily aimed at the following policy objectives:

1. Promoting sustainable consumption and production patterns throughout the water sector from exploitation to utilization;
2. Augmentation of the available water resources of the country through judicious and equitable utilization via reservoirs, conservation and efficient use;
3. Improving availability, reliability and quality of fresh water resources to meet critical municipal, agricultural, energy, security and environmental needs;
4. Improving urban water management by increasing system efficiency and reducing non revenue water through adequate investments to address drinking water demand, sewage disposal, handling of wastewater and industrial effluents;
5. Promoting behavioural change to reduce wastage of water by raising public awareness through media campaigns and incorporating water conservation lessons in syllabi/curricula at primary, secondary and tertiary levels;
6. Hydropower development to increase the share of renewable energy;
7. Providing food security and expanding water availability to help adapt to climate change, population and other large-scale stresses;8. Treatment and possible reuse of waste water – domestic, agricultural and industrial;
9. Upgrading water sector information systems for improved asset management and to derive evidence and data driven decision making;
10. Improving watershed management through extensive soil conservation, catchment area treatment, preservation of forests and increasing forest cover;
11. Restoring and maintaining the health of the environment and water–related eco systems;
12. Flood management to mitigate floods and minimize their damages;
13. Drought management with emphasis on long–term vulnerability reduction;
14. Security of benefit streams of water–related infrastructure for sustained provision of services;
15. Promoting appropriate technologies for rain water harvesting in rural as well as urban areas;
16. Regulating groundwater withdrawals for curbing over-abstraction and promoting aquifer recharge;
17. Adequate water pricing (Abiana) for irrigation and proper operation and maintenance of the irrigation system as well as other user sectors;
18. Promoting measures for long-term sustainability of the Irrigation System;
19. Encouraging beneficiary participation and public–private partnerships;
20. Strengthening and Capacity building of water sector institutions;
21. Profitable use of flood water towards promotion of local irrigation practices;
22. Exploitation of vast potential of water generated through hill torrents;
23. Protection of wetlands and Ramsar Sites for the prevention of wild life, flora and fauna;
24. Stoppage of further sea water intrusion into Sindh (upstream from coastline) for the sustainability of coastal environment, flora and fauna and mangrove growth including the use of skimming dug-wells in coastal areas ;
25. Establishment of Hydro-meteorological disaster risk reduction complied integrated water resources management regime;
26. Enhancing water productivity through infrastructure development and adoption of improved technologies in a sustainable manner;
27. Climate change impact assessment and adaptation for sustainable water resources development and management;
28. Promoting research on water-resources-related issues of national importance and building capacity/delineating roles and responsibilities of federal research institutions and promoting coordination among them;
29. Setting major national targets for the water sector including those for water conservation, water storage, Irrigation, water treatment and drinking water. These targets can be firmed up in consultation with the Provincial Governments and reviewed periodically for inclusion in the 12th and 13th Five Year Plans and future plans;
30. Secure Katcha areas and economy thereof;
31. Preserve delta area by providing sufficient supplies regularly;
32. Rainwater management in plains where it cannot be disposed of or diverted to the river;
33. Effective implementation of the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord in letter and spirit.

Strategic Priorities and Planning Principles

The objectives of the National Water Policy are grounded in a set of principles aimed at promoting greater national interest and the welfare of the people of Pakistan. In addition, several strategic initiatives have been identified that will be taken up at the Federal and Provincial levels, since they are of critical importance to the water, energy and food security of Pakistan. These include:

Conservation and Efficiency: More than 50 percent of canal water diverted from the Indus system does not reach the farm level. While the main canals cannot and should not be lined, a crash programme for lining the water courses can reduce the seepage by at least one-third. Similarly conservation measures can be adopted for ground water by regulating its extraction and use. Both conservation and efficiency must be highlighted for Demand Side Management (DSM) of water resources. The current policies have a supply side bias. It is important to make the distinction between efficiency, which means reducing waste, and doing more with less and conservation, which refers to restricting use.

NATIONAL WATER POLICYStorage: The most important instrument of mitigation against the impact of climate change on water resources is storage. If the pattern of rainfall becomes erratic with more than average rain in one year and a drastic reduction in the next years’ rainfall, the only way to conserve the surplus rainwater in wet years is to store it and release it in dry years, when required. For storage and new irrigation projects, a national master plan must be developed which must cater for storage, floods, arid areas, irrigation, urban water and tariff rationalization. In addition, there are vast possibilities of small and medium size dams, enhancing the life of existing storages and remodelling and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure in the country. Expansion of water storage will expand irrigation and also increase the proportion of hydro-power in the energy mix, reducing the need for thermal power.

Leveraging Technology: Adoption of new technologies is urgently needed for (i) sea water utilization and water recycling (ii) preparation of an inventory of water resources through remote sensing and GIS technologies (iii) accurate monitoring of irrigation water delivery. Home-grown innovation in the water sector should be encouraged as much as possible, including investments aimed at start-up companies that promote remote sensing, demand side management and agricultural productivity.

Renewable Energy: Sustainable water resources development has a close nexus with renewable energy. Large, medium and small dams not only generate cheap and clean energy but also provide reliable source of water for agriculture and other human needs. With appropriate policies and subsidies, a large percentage of tube wells in Pakistan can be converted to solar energy especially in areas where water table is not very low, to provide additional water at lower cost. Solar energy can also be used for day-time de-salinization of sea water, particularly in the coastal areas of Balochistan.

NATIONAL WATER POLICYIntegrated Water Resource Management: The management of water resources is shifting from sectoral to a more integrated approach in different parts of the world. Under IWRM, (i) the interests of all upstream and downstream stakeholders can be protected against mining and contamination. (ii) Watershed and catchment areas can be protected to prolong the life of water–storage facilities. This revolutionary IWRM concept will, however, require strengthening institutional and management capacity at all levels.

Comprehensive Regulatory Framework: The Federal government must play a leading role in facilitating regulations to ensure the efficient and sustainable utilization of ground water, industrial uses and waste water management. Food security, water security and energy security being inextricably linked, so the regulatory framework must address all the associated issues comprehensively, including ground water contamination, waste treatment, open defecation (WASH).

Planning Principles: The process of planning, development and management of water resources at the Federal and Provincial level, including the development of this policy will be guided by the following set of principles:

a. Equity and participatory decision-making: Water sector activities shall be participatory and consultative at each level and decisions will be taken by consensus.
b. Water is a strategic resource and access to affordable and safe drinking water is a fundamental human right of all citizens.
c. Efficiency and conservation will be promoted at all levels.
d. Environmental sustainability must be ensured.
e. Practicability and innovation will be encouraged and ensured.
f. Command area development shall be the responsibility of farmers with government support in respect of small land-holdings.

Within these broad parameters of water security, the provincial governments can formulate more detailed policies and guidelines on other subjects like (i) water pricing (ii) drinking water, (iii) water quality and (iv) water treatment, keeping in view the National Environment Policy, 2005; the National Sanitation Policy; 2006; and the National Drinking Water Policy, 2009, and the overall agricultural priorities.


The consensus document is a positive step towards water security. Its approval in the closing days of the current government is also important because water is the lifeblood of Pakistan and since the building of the world’s largest irrigation system, along with a huge storage infrastructure, in the 1960s and 1970s, the sharing and utilization of water across sectors and among provinces has been one of the thorniest issues in our politics. The policy itself has been under discussion, on and off, for over a decade, and the final signatures of the four chief ministers and the prime minister can be seen as a milestone, much like the water-sharing accord of 1991.

But now comes the hard part. The policy calls for increasing the share of resources from federal and provincial development programmes to be dedicated to the water infrastructure. At the federal level, this means accelerating work on the Diamer–Bhasha Dam, and at the provincial level it means public works to plug leaks through lining the water courses. The latter ought to be the biggest priority. Losses of water are estimated at 46 MAF annually, whereas the Diamer–Bhasha Dam will add 6.4 MAF of storage capacity. If the policy succeeds in reducing losses by a third, as is the stated goal, the amount of water it would free up would be double the capacity of the Diamer–Bhasha Dam, at presumably less than half the cost.

Far too often, Pakistan’s water woes during climate change are presented as shortage in the supply of water, whereas the real challenge is in the improved utilisation of the existing supply. This involves some investment in physical infrastructure, but also large-scale changes in farm-water management techniques and the sound measurement of water flows through the system, to give a few examples. This requires a crucial reform: water pricing — the only way to sensitise farmers to the prevailing scarcity of water, and to urge greater efficiency in the use of this resource. And yet, this is one area where the policy minces its words. It wants to link water pricing with the “users’ ability to pay,” which is going to be next to impossible for the state to assess. Until a realistic water-pricing regime is brought into play, mobilising investment and changing utilisation patterns in agriculture will prove to be a losing battle.


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