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The Coming Water Challenge

World Water Day

Threats & Opportunities for Pakistan

Themed as ‘Water and Sustainable Development’, March 22nd this year marked the World Water Day that is celebrated every year under the banner of the UN-Water. The day served as an opportunity to highlight the importance of water at the heart of sustainable development. Given the scarce water resources in view of ever-increasing demand of the growing population as well as the, urbanization and industrialization phenomena, water challenge has emerged as a key theme at the global level, forcing governments to draw up policies to address the challenge on urgent basis. It also explains why inter-state and intra-state water conflicts are becoming a routine in the contemporary world. Owing to the very dependence of humanity on water as well as its relevance to a nation’s socioeconomic development, water security is now globally identified as an inseparable component of national security paradigm.

World Water Day holds even greater importance for Pakistan as the country is confronted with acute water scarcity. The criticality of the challenge can be gauged from the fact that at the time of country’s inception, per capita availability of water was over 5000cm3 — against a population of approximately 34 million individuals. Today, the per capita availability has been reduced only a little over 1000cm3. The reasons responsible for marked reduction in water availability include phenomenal increase in population, rapid urbanization, inability to construct enough water reservoirs and gradual erosion in the storage capacity of existing reservoirs due to sedimentation. If urgent measures are not taken, the country may face water scarcity that will have lethal implications for its people, agriculture and economy. Such a possibility is staring Pakistan in the face as the per capita water availability is likely to go down to 8.9% by 2025.

Pakistan’s unending water crisis began soon after its inception when India stopped water into the eastern rivers virtually strangulating the nascent country. The grim situation led to hectic efforts for resolution of the problem. Thanks to good offices of the World Bank, Indus Waters Treaty — signed between Pakistan and New Delhi in 1960 — allocated water share to both countries with western rivers namely Indus, Jhelum and Chenab coming to Pakistan and eastern rivers namely Sutlej, Ravi and Beas going to India. The completion of Indus Basin Replacement Works by Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) in 1960s was no small achievement as the task was accomplished within time and within the cost estimations. Under the said arrangement, two mega dams namely Mangla and Tarbela on Jhelum and Indus rivers respectively, five barrages, eight inter-river canals and remodelling of three inter-river link canals were constructed.

Nature has blessed Pakistan with abundant water resources. According to latest studies on the subject, the country has an average water flow of 145 million acre feet (MAF) per annum. However, we have just been able to develop water storage capacity of 14% against a world average of 40%, which is just 10% of average annual flows. After Mangla, Tarbela and Chashma, the country has not developed any noticeable mega hydel project. Given the present level of sedimentation, our water storages would lose 37% (6.2 MAF) of their capacity by 2025, which virtually means loss of one mega storage project.

Agriculture tops the list of water-consuming sectors as more than 90% of the country’s water resources are used for irrigating the crops. Pakistan’s agriculture sector employs about 45% of the workforce and contributes about 21% to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Pakistan has the ability to divert about 104 MAF of surface water for irrigation which feeds the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system spread over more than 48 million acres of fertile Indus plains. There are 20 million acres of virgin land, which can be brought under plough if more water is made available. Out of annual water flows, about 30MAF water flows into the sea from Kotri Barrage every year, over and above mandatory flushing. Over the last 35 years, we have wasted 1095 MAF water into the sea.

The water crisis in Pakistan is further aggravating due to a combination of phenomena like climate change, merciless pumping of surface water, extravagant use of precious water resources, and so on. Geographical fault-lines Pakistan is located at are subject to erratic weather patterns due to climate change. The country faced less rains and a drought-like situation from 2001 to 2009 followed by super floods during 2010 onwards. Anthropogenic climate change is only one of many pressures on freshwater systems. Climate and freshwater systems are inter-connected in complex ways; any change in one induces a change in the other. It is projected that by the end of current century, the temperature in Pakistan’s plains will rise to the tune of 4 degrees. The use of water, especially irrigation water, generally increases with rise in temperature. If this is the case, then in Pakistan where the use of water is dominated by irrigation and accounts for more than 90% of total consumptive water use, we have to take pre-emptive measures to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change on water resources.

The situation is indeed extremely alarming and it may prove detrimental to Pakistan if no remedial steps are immediately taken to address the water challenge. This makes the integrated water resource management to develop a holistic approach at the national level all the more inevitable.

To begin with, any delay in constructing additional water storages would be suicidal. As mentioned above, we are wasting precious water resources due to lack of sufficient water reservoirs. If we do not increase our water storage capacity, we will witness greater losses in the form of floods as the possibility of frequent flooding is all the more real due to increased flows from glacier melting. The efficacy of dams was proven last year when Raised Mangla Dam trimmed peak floods from Chenab and Jhelum Rivers and saved the country from incalculable destruction. The development of Indus Cascade offers the way forward as potential water storages have already been identified on it.

Secondly, we need to adopt modern irrigation techniques such as drip and sprinkler. This will reduce the wastage of water by half and will make more water available for irrigated agriculture.

Thirdly, treatment plants need to be installed for making saline and effluent water useable for agriculture and fisheries sectors. The fact of the matter is that out of 104MAF diverted at canal head, only 58MAF is available at the farm gate and the rest of water is lost due to flawed conveyance system. Hence, we need to work on improving the efficiency of conveyance infrastructure such as canals and water courses to minimize water losses. A mutually cooperative framework will have to be developed between the provinces as conveyance system is administrated directly by them.

Fifthly, there is an urgent need of sensitizing the people about adopting the conservation habits as national character. It calls for greater collaboration among all stakeholders. Media and educational institutions should play a key role in making awareness campaign effective and result-oriented. We need to incorporate the theme of water conservation in our educational curricula so that students may imbibe this habit in their formative phase.

What we need to understand is that we have a duty of bequeathing a prosperous and developed country that is self-sufficient in meeting its basic needs, to succeeding generations. It is about time we focused on optimally harnessing our indigenous hydel resources besides curbing extravagant use of water through introduction of high efficiency irrigation techniques and water conservation. Water is life and on this World Water Day, let us pledge to play our individual and collective role in conserving this precious resource and making future of our children bright.

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