PAKISTAN’S WATER CRISIS | Are we a water-stressed nation?

Pakistans Water Crisis

Pakistan with its 200 million inhabitants is experiencing rapid urbanisation and industrial development. Its population is facing a water challenge. Currently, it is the world’s 26th most water-stressed country, where 35 per cent of the population lacks access to safe water. By 2025, the population is expected to cross 250 million, reducing Pakistan’s per capita annual availability of water to 660 cubic meters.


At a time when Pakistan’s the population growth is on an upward trajectory, the per capita water availability is on a steep decline and the country is experiencing ‘water-stress’ conditions. According to Falkenmark Indicator — the most commonly used water-scarcity measure — if the amount of renewable water in a country is between 1,000m3 and 1700m3, the country is said to be experiencing water stress. The water availability in Pakistan is below 1,700m3 since 1990 and pockets within Pakistan experience periodic water shortages. According to WAPDA’s own calculations, the per capita water availability will be reduced to 909m3 by 2020 and by 2050 it would further decrease to 769m3. But, nothing concrete has been done in the past few decades to address the issue and the nation itself is responsible for the shortfall we face today.

Global Warming Phenomenon

The water that comes through the river basin originates from rainfall, snowfall and the melting of glaciers. The glaciated area of the Karakoram of Pakistan is 13,000 square kilometres with 5,000 glaciers in the Indus catchments. The annual average glacier melt is 40 MAF which flows through the Indus Basin. But global warming is changing the equilibrium as, according to a World Bank study, the Eastern Himalayan glaciers may retreat for the next fifty years and afterwards the river flow may decrease by 40-50 percent. In the days of high melting, floods may come and after that droughts may become the norm.

Water Management Woes

The average annual flow of water of Pakistan’s Indus System is 140-145MAF while the country’s live storage capacity is mere 10 percent (14.06MAF) with only three dams to do so. The world average storage capacity is 40 percent with 20,000MAF water availability and 8,000 dams in total. The storage capacity of only the Nile river basin is 132MAF (281%) from 47MAF annual flow while Sutlej Beas Basin in India, on average, stores 35 percent of its 32MAV annual flow.

It evidences that, like in many other areas, Pakistan is performing poorly in water management as well. And, if this ‘ostrich approach’ continues, the water crisis in coming decades may worsen. It is pertinent to mention here that water is the lifeline and its shortage can trigger wars including inter-provincial rifts.

Current Situation

According to a study conducted by the International Waterlogging and Salinity Research Institute, at present, the groundwater table in Pakistan is fast depleting — on average 15 to 66 centimetres are depleting in Punjab as well as a few districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The report further warns that the situation in Balochistan is even worse.

The excessive use of tube-wells, ages-old flood irrigation systems and the selection of water-intensive crops are some prominent examples of the huge waste of water. And, this is because of its dirt cheap price and the absence of proper definition of water rights. The low price of water leads to selection of not only inefficient irrigation methods but also excess cultivation of crops with high water requirements; such as rice.

How to Manage?

In Pakistan, 100MAF water goes to canals every year while only 60MAF reaches the farm gate while 40MAF is conveyance loss whereas the system losses are 10MAF. The canal losses can be minimized and system losses can be checked as well. The economic cost of water is estimated at $1-2 billion per MAF and by virtue of it, at the lower level, Pakistan wastes a potential of $20 billion (7% of GDP) every year.

To improve the situation we need to immediately enhance water storage capacity while also to stop huge wastages that we have been, till now, unable to control. For this, the most urgent need is to build reservoirs to store water in years of high flow and use it in dry seasons. The water going to the sea has erratic trends depending upon the amount of rain and glacial melting in a given year. Additionally, electricity generation from this storage of water is a by-product — a dire need of the country.

Moreover, we need to use water more efficiently and that can be done through pricing and well-defined water property rights. There has to be reuse of water through desalination of the seawater.

What to Do?

There is a dire need to have policies at the macro level to enhance water storage capacity of the country whereas at the micro level, it is imperative to have the right policy mix for proper water management through macro-frameworks to align incentive structures and through well-defined water property rights.

1. Efficient Use of Water

For a typical rice-grower, the cost of irrigation was 45 percent of the total cost in 1926 while today it is less than one percent. This explains that farmers have no incentive to use water efficiently. Hence, the water pricing from the lens of optimal use must be revisited; before it is too late. Once the pricing is right, farmers will use efficient irrigation systems such as sprinklers, pivot irrigation and eventually drip irrigation instead of the flood irrigation system. The private sector will itself come up with solutions once demand is created through proper pricing mechanism.

Through the right policy mix, the need for water availability of average 60MAF per year at farm-gate will reduce significantly and water will be stored that will be deployed for high value-adding industrial use.

2. Defining Groundwater Rights

There are also no defined groundwater rights and it leads to the exercise of power and resources at the cost of others. The person or organization that can bore deep is able to utilize water; leaving less for the neighbouring community without any compensation. For instance Nestlé bores water from Sheikhupura, processes it, bottles it and sells it to the elite of the country at high margins without paying any royalty to the inhabitants of the area. Similar actions are carried out by numerous other mineral water suppliers. So, there should be a clear definition of underground-water rights and there should be a compensation mechanism for those who are losing out due to falling water table in their areas. When the state can have well-defined rights for minerals (such as oil and gas), why can’t it have similar clarity for water?

3. Preventing Domestic Waste

In domestic and commercial use, there are colossal wastages of water as consumers are not bothered to conserve water given its negligible price. The country has wasted huge reserves of Sui Gas by virtue of low pricing. The same has happened in water usage for decades. There should be slabs for water consumption which allow certain necessary use at cheap rates but there should be penal charged if water usage increases over critical levels.

4. Charges on Supply & Wastage

Both water supply and wastages should be priced smartly. For instance, in Scotland, the fixed charges for both water supply and disposal of waste water increases four times once the minimum usage limit is crossed and the rate increases exponentially for subsequent, higher slabs.

Housing societies should be encouraged to have their own storage and recycling plants. Reverse osmosis (RO) plants are common today in the developed world. To fund the installation and functioning of these RO plants, the sewerage disposal should be taxed for each and every household. The recycled water can be used for watering of green areas. Why is the water supplied to golf courses charged at the same rates as that supplied to poor neighbourhoods? Luxuries should be charged a premium.

5. Desalination Plants

In Karachi and along the costal highways, there should be focus on desalination plants to rid the mega city of the tankers mafia. There should be tax holidays and other incentives for desalination plants all across the coastal areas and RO plants for large- and small-urban centres. This will also help in the redistribution of population and increase economic well-being of average households.

6. Building Reservoirs

The need for macro-level water storage such as dams and reservoirs hold undeniable and paramount importance. These are not possible without the will and finances of the government. In the past 40 years, no meaningful storage has been enhanced or built while the population growth has been amongst the highest in the world. This has cut the per capita water availability at an alarming pace. This situation has to be tackled collectively by all the provinces in the greater interest of the country.

7. Overcoming Water Losses

Average escapage below Kotri to sea was much higher prior to this century. During FYs76-99, the average flow to sea was 40.7MAF with only year (out of 23 years) of flow below 10MAF. The trend has drastically changed in this century as during FYs00-15 the average flow reduced to 12.7MAF with the flow under 10MAF in nine out of the past 15 years.

The annual water flow has decreased over this period but water wastage — before it reaches Kotri — has increased; probably due to the system losses, conveyance losses and other wastages are on the rise. This implies that the water required to go to sea for ecological need is not reaching there and that could have other repercussions on the natural environmental.


At present, the focus of government is more on power generation than on water storage. The philosophy should have been to build dams to enhance storage with power generation a by-product; not the other way round. The country’s water needs are going to be much higher than what would be available if the government and other agencies do not intervene. If we do not take prudent measures to resolve the crisis, the next generations will never forgive us.

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