Pakistan’s looming water crisis | East Asia Forum


Author: Aneel Salman, COMSATS University Islamabad

In 2025, Pakistan may face an acute water crisis. To avoid this outcome, Pakistan must frame a rational, politically unbiased and holistic water policy that reflects its priorities of growth and development. The problem is not due to water availability, but the mismanagement of water resources.

A worker fills containers at a free water distribution point on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan, 19 March 2021 (Photo: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

In 2021, the government of Pakistan’s Sindh province received 5.38 million acre-feet (MAF) of irrigated water, which is a 35 per cent decline in its share in provincial allocation. Red chilli, cotton and rice crops have suffered the most due to the shortage. The decline in provincial allocation was a political move despite the Pakistan Meteorologist Department claiming that this decrease is due to climate change

Under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, Pakistan gave up its control over three eastern tributaries of the Indus River, which is one of the root causes of the water crisis. The total inflow of water in the Indus River System was 117 MAF before the treaty. Now, Pakistan receives only 80 MAF, which is allocated to Pakistan’s provinces under the Water Allocation Strategy. This allocation deals in terms of numbers, not water quality, which is different in every region . Both of these crucial variables were missing in the treaty.

Currently, 97 per cent of the fresh water in Pakistan is used in the agriculture sector, which makes up 18 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP. Bad agriculture choices, flood irrigation, a lack of hybrid seeding and poor water management are putting a heavy burden on water resources. There are several issues with water management, including a lack of basin-wise water resource management and no proper system to stop evaporation and pilferage (40 per cent of water is lost). Pakistan also faces the challenges of 13 per cent of the cultivable land being saline and 30 per cent of agricultural land being waterlogged. 

There is no policy for the mangroves which require a constant inflow of fresh water to stay alive to prevent sea incursion and there has been no melting in the glaciers for the past two years. The frequency of seasonal and tropical storms have increased, which has resulted in severe flooding in coastal areas including Karachi and Keti Bunder. Interprovincial rivalry further aggravates the situation. In 2005, a team of international consultants gave their analysis and redesigned water demands for the Indus Delta. It was agreed that 10 MAF would be given to Sindh, but the question remained: how? 

Pakistan’s water issues are due to ineffective management. Unequal access and distribution, growing population, urbanisation, progressive industrialisation, lack of storage capacity and climate risk makes water management a difficult task. Climate change has been causing shifts in the weather pattern in different parts of the country, which requires area-specific solutions, not a generic policy. Since the 1980s, domestic water supply and irrigation management have become more participatory and privatised with a focus on physical targets rather than on capacity building. This has benefited the economic and political elite and has deprived poor farmers of their due access to irrigated water.

Pakistan can only store 10 per cent of the average annual flow of its rivers, which is far below the world average storage capacity of 40 per cent. Pakistan had been water-abundant in the past (almost 6000 cubic metres per capita in 1960), but now has become a water-stressed country with 1017 cubic meter per capita

Water governance in Pakistan needs to be reassessed and made more compatible with other public policies. Pakistan’s first National Water Policy in 2018 does not pay enough attention to water sensitive urban designs, risk management against natural hazards and trade in water-intensive crops. Any policy to address these challenges should include customised, location-specific solutions which can deal with the topographical, source water body, receiving water body and socioeconomic context of the setting. 

Water storage and management should be the focus of the government, along with transparent assessments undertaken in every province about water inflow and outflow. There must be a strong political will to stop Pakistan from entering a water crisis. Otherwise, Pakistan will face what we see in apocalypse movies, an extinction-level event.

Aneel Salman is Director of the Faculty Development Academy at COMSATS University Islamabad.



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