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August 27, 2019

Disappearing water


August 27, 2019

Pakistan is lunging into a serious water crisis. The country is rapidly moving from being a water abundant country to a water-scarce country.

With its annual water availability falling below 1,000 cubic metres per person, it may in fact have already crossed this threshold. This is partly due to depletion of its fresh water resources because of increasing population, adverse climate variations like drought and inconsistent monsoon patterns, and lack of storage facilities. And it is partially due to the unchecked demand for these many limited available resources.

The scope of the crisis can be demonstrated by a few key facts: About 92 percent of Pakistan is classified as semi-arid to arid and the vast majority of Pakistanis are dependent on surface and groundwater sources from a single source – the Indus River basin.

Since gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan’s population has more than quadrupled; by 2100 its population will have increased tenfold.

More than 90 percent of the country’s water is being used by the agriculture sector where conventional irrigation methods are undertaken.

About 90 percent of the country’s agricultural production comes from land irrigated by the Indus Basin Irrigation System, firmly linking national food security to water levels in the Indus River basin. And, Pakistan’s water storage capacity is limited to a maximum 30-day supply, far below the 1,000-day storage capacity recommended for a country with its climatic characteristics.

With water availability per person declining year by year, and demand for food production continuously increasing, Pakistan faces not only a water crisis but also serious concerns regarding its future food security. This situation also has clear implications for the government’s efforts to become an upper middle income country by 2025.

If we do not take effective and timely steps, the situation will worsen with drastic effects of floods and severe droughts. Changes in water availability also impact health and food security outcomes in a country. It has already proven to trigger challenges such as refugee dynamics, political instability, and economic growth as well as decrease in the national developmental progress.

As the world celebrates World Water Week this August, it reflects everyone’s right to access to safe and clean water, also emphasized by the United Nations development agenda, in the shape of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on ‘water and sanitation’. Despite progress, billions of people still lack safe water, sanitation and hand-washing facilities. Data suggests that achieving universal access to even basic sanitation service by 2030 would require doubling the current annual rate of progress.

Another side of this crisis is evident from the growing demand for water, threats to water security and the increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods resulting from climate change. According to reports, most countries are unlikely to reach full implementation of the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) by 2030. The objective of this intervention is to establish the impacts of climate change on water demand.

The relevant authorities should carry out a study to assess the national water demand which should focus on different water users, water balance, traditional and emerging demands, and the impacts of climate change on demand by 2025 and 2050. In order for the government to take informed decisions, sectoral demands have to be estimated for all sectors. This will give an idea to the policymakers about which sectors consume most water.

Studies like these will also help realize the contribution each sector makes towards the national economy as per their water usage. For instance, according to a report, four major crops that consume about 80 percent of the country’s water resources (wheat, rice, cotton and sugarcane) generate less than five percent of the national GDP. This is just one of the many examples of the amount of water that goes in the production of an economic commodity and its attached contribution to the national GDP. This gives a comprehensive overview of the water allocation going into the production of such commodities.

Furthermore, experts suggest that rain water harvesting must be introduced in local households, in both urban and rural areas. Flood irrigation should be a criminal act that is still being practised in Pakistan; this has to stop. Improved irrigation methods and crop zoning are the country’s need at the moment. There is a need to reuse water in houses; for example, the water used in our kitchens can be reused in our toilets.

There is a need to enhance capacity-building at all levels – for instance, awareness campaigns particularly at educational institutions. The government has to assess sectoral water demand and its contribution towards the economy in order to support coordinated decision-making across sectors and scales. The government should bring all stakeholders together to implement an effective policy to overcome this persisting issue and ensure collective action.

As we talk about the collective action approach, the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) Standard has to be mentioned here because of its relevance to the subject. It is an international standard guiding organizations and companies on how to improve their water efficiency not just onsite but also offsite. The certification can be acquired only after due alignment of all the local stakeholders not just inside of the organizations/factories but also outside.

The government can substantially achieve its water conservation targets (if there are any) while taking help from the AWS Standard and binding its certification across major water users (sector and/or industries).

The writer is a public health expert with specialization in health economics.