Pakistan Water Crisis: When the Levee (Will Not and Does Not) Break



    Recently, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) cautioned the nation of the severity of the enduring heatwaves and advised us to “keep hydrated”. While the common man continues to slog, the warning triggered an emotional stimulus in our Burger class and Pseudo-intellectuals, reflecting in an increased domestic water use, as we took refuge in our cozy bathtubs and air-conditioned lounges. These scorching waves however should be perceived as a wakeup call, and a re-evaluation of our past norms, habits and practices that have led us to this disastrous state. Though, the heatwaves three years ago took away 1200 lives while 40,000 suffered from heatstroke and heat exhaustion, the water still drops only in the courtyards of the privileged.

    In some sense, these heat waves circulating across the nation might prove to be our saving grace, if acted wisely. Surprisingly, it has somewhat woken us up partially to the extent that we have at least started acknowledging the climate realities on our egocentric social accounts. Not a bad scenario to be in as the main ‘dragon of inaction’ to climate change is limited cognition, and with a little awareness and a few intense heatwave encounters, it might evoke a sense of responsibility and much needed reforms both in our personal and political fronts.

    Located North of the tropic of cancer, Pakistan is blessed with all four seasons and faces extreme climatic variations, ranging from dust storms and heatwaves to monsoon rains, tropical storms, smog and westerly waves in the winter. All previous research indicates that in times to come, heatwaves will last longer, be more persistent and intense, and most importantly, will be worse at the Tropics than at higher latitudes. Water being the remedy, like in most situations, overstresses its worth and the need of its effective governance yet again.

    Not taking the required steps in 1998-2002 and 2005, when we faced the worst drought in our history with 40 percent of the country’s water needs being unmet and surpassed the ‘water scarcity line’ respectively, has led us to be the third most water-stressed country in the world. Further intensifying this grave situation in Pakistan’s water intensity rate i.e. a measure of cubic meters used per unit of GDP, being the world’s highest. Simply put, the economy of Pakistan is the most water-intensive in the world, and yet retaining dangerously low water levels to work with – a per capita annual water availability of a meager 191 million-acre feet (MAF).

    Owing to the uncontrolled population growth, the demand for water is projected to escalate to 274 MAF by 2025, culminating into a deficit of 83 MAF. Lately, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) informed us of the shocking ground realities. The current water storage in the reserves stood at only 0.220 million acres feet (MAF), implying a shortage of 51% at rim stations and 65-70% at canal heads after conveyance losses (seepage, leakage). Moreover, huge gaps in storage capacity and inflows have been identified – the storage last year was 3.6 MAF while this year it was only 0.22 MAF, and on the same date last year, inflows were 3,75,100 cusecs while the water flow has dropped to 1,12,900 cusecs this year.

    Spanning 1800 miles, the Indus River Basin has one of the most expansive irrigation canal system in the world and is the backbone of our entire ecosystem. However, it is experiencing a combination of “ecological insecurity, resource stresses, development pressures and management challenges” that make it a highly vulnerable water resource system. Increasing risk of drought and anticipated glacial retreat due to climate change may reduce the flow of the Indus by thirty to forty percent in the next hundred years. Global warming has not only raised the sea levels but has made the Himalayan Glaciers, the prime source of the Indus, melt at an alarming rate. Moreover, environmental degradation and massive deforestation has significantly damaged the basin’s watershed area, resulting in declining annual water yield. Currently, there is no institutional framework or legal instrument for addressing the effects of the changing climate on the availability of water in the Indus River Basin.

    Due to an amalgamation of age and the “Build-Neglect-Rebuild” philosophy of public works, there exists a vast maintenance gap in the Basin’s infrastructure. The non-existence of a modern Asset management plan has led to deterioration of various barrages in Pakistan. WAPDA disclosed the disgraceful state of our reservoirs recently and as per their records, the present levels at Mangla, Chashma and Tarbela is at par with their respective minimum operating levels. This can be attributed to the fact that the available technology during the constructions of these three main reservoirs, did not account for the silting of the reservoirs. Naturally, this led to major siltation overtime, with an estimated twenty-five million tons of salt accumulating in the basin every year, and it anticipated that by 2020, 7.27 MAF or 40% of the total storage capacity will be lost.

    A change in resource environments which outpaces the capacity of existing institutions to deal with that change, is the key challenge facing our water governance. Perhaps the most salient one is the unsustainable groundwater mining. The Agriculture sector, which uses more than 90% of Pakistan’s water resources, has seen little to no reforms over the past 67 years. Although enriched with abundant sunshine, fertile soils and exceptional farmers, the crop yields in Pakistan have been far below the international benchmarks, highlighting the poor productivity partly owing to poor water quality and inefficient-redundant farming practices. There practically has been little or no investment in the R&D of new seeds or advocacy of modern farming practices, resulting in low yield at higher costs. Similarly, the market linkages are in a poor state where the smallholder stands at the mercy of the middlemen.

    Furthermore, the existing equation of Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability = Corruption hasn’t helped the water bureaucracy to undertake a transition from builders of assets to that of effective managers of assets. Apart from allocation issues, regime management has been a serious challenge for the bordering countries mostly owing to the competing demands, sovereignty concerns, and the deeply-rooted mistrust. This has led to these nations incessantly adopting a defensive approach, instead of facilitating cooperative development. Modi recently inaugurated the highly controversial Kishanganga Dam which clearly violates the Indus Water Treaty and while Pakistan has sent a four-member team to the World Bank, the spilled water will never return to its container.

    While the Indus Water Treaty is “considered the world’s most successful water treaty, having remained relatively intact for 50 years and having withstood four Indo-Pakistani wars”, it fails to account for variability and changes in climate, population, apportionment of groundwater, rainfall levels, glacial lake outburst floods and so on. Owing to pressing population and development growth, Indus aquifer is considered one of the most overstressed in the world. Yet, the IWT doesn’t account for transboundary groundwater-sharing rules and distribution. Moreover, poor environmental regulations and laws means that the pollution levels remain unchecked. There are several reports of toxic and hazardous substances in the river water making their way downstream into Pakistan. Shifting environmental and ecological conditions only make it further clear that revisions are long due in the IWT- which previously assumed conformity to historical data, as opposed to making accommodations for climate and economic changes.

    In order to offset this tragedy of the commons, it is high time that the construction works on Kalabagh Dam initiate right away, exhibiting a minimum social and environmental impact. This will not only solve our water crisis but the potential hydel generation capacity of 3600 MGWT (equal to 20 million barrels of oil required for thermal generation), will partially solve the energy crisis and save us at least Rs100/billion in foreign exchange per annum. Moreover, it will save us a major chunk of 30 million MAF flowing into the sea through flow below Kotri Barrage. The barren lands of Sindh and KPK will be brought under cultivation and the storage of excess water due to flood peaks in Indus, Swan and Kabul rivers can save us the damage of $20 billion as experienced in 2010. The prevailing mistrust among the provincial governments of Punjab and Sindh over its formation can be sorted by adopting a transdisciplinary approach involving all stakeholders (water experts, locals, engineers) from both sides. Moreover, we should focus on refilling the natural aquifers of Thal, Bari and Rachna doabs as they provide a massive potential for storage capacity. Our neighbors might want to pull their heads out of the sand too. China can realign its much beloved CPEC from Special Economic zones to water reservoirs while India can stop funding receptive elements in Sindh to sustain the opposition of Kalabagh Dam.

    While the formulation of Pakistan’s First Water Policy recently is a step in the right direction (about time), there still exist huge gaps in the provincial setting. The existing medium of Warabandi (a timed-allocation of canal-water flow) in theory means that farmers are guaranteed particular volumes. In practice however, this premise is severely unrealistic, as it erroneously assumes canals have an even height and thus flow rate. This disparity means that time allocations actually do not guarantee users particular volumes—not all turns are equal—which goes far beyond simple inequitable impacts on farmers at the tail ends of canals. In this situation and others, the takeaway is that adequate storage and delivery infrastructure must exist for trading to occur. Although, the Accord has stood for more than 20 years, it fails to account for the dynamic economic sways, technological advancements and most importantly, the increasing uncertainty about the amount- timing of flows (given climate change’s effects on headwater glaciers). Hence, this calls for an update of the Interprovincial Water Accord which will allow trading across provincial boundaries and a proportionate sharing of surpluses and shortages. Moreover, inclusion of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Islamabad is necessary, as the accord completely overlooked the aforementioned regions.

    Abundant policy tools exist to improve water efficiency and conservation. Some are focused on agriculture: lining conveyance canals, laser leveling fields, switching to less water-intensive crops, etc. Other solutions are aimed at municipal and industrial users: establishing tiered water rates, replacing inefficient water appliances with high-efficiency models, constructing wastewater treatment plants and so on. Taken together, these methods can dramatically reduce water use. A Water Stewardship Council comprising of diverse stakeholders (Farmers, Entrepreneurs, NGO’s, Businesses etc.), working on reforms that prevent marginalization and conflict is what is required.

    The sustenance of the existing infrastructure needs the development of an ‘Asset Management Plan’ composing of the inventory of assets, monitoring, and evaluation of their condition and the requirements for one-time or regular rehabilitation for its maintenance. Formulation of national and provincial drainage and salt-management strategies will prove vital in overcoming the fundamental challenge of salinity in the basin. Going beyond delivering water services, investments in ‘on-farm services’ including watercourse lining, land leveling, an initiation state-of-the-art technologies will prove beneficial in ensuring agricultural diversification, crop productivity and income-jobs produced per drop of water.

    The government may consider replacing the archaic method of flood irrigation (a major reason for water wastage) with drip irrigation, something which is being practiced all across the globe. A revision in water pricing (Abiana) is imperative, as Abiana rates represent less than 0.2% of crop budgets, giving farmers little or no incentive to conserve and use water efficiently. Another important intervention could be the regulation of crops to discourage notoriously thirsty cash crops which neither make economic sense nor contribute to national welfare. For example, the average water requirement of sugarcane is 1,800 millimeters (mm) which is more than the combined average water requirement of wheat (480mm), maize (550mm) and cotton (620mm).

    More importantly, exercising ‘Joint watershed management’ with India can convert the challenge of climate change into an opportunity. Installation of a real-time telemetry system for monitoring water quality and quantity at various sites including Kashmir will remove the mistrust on data exchange. To ensure a sustainable flow in the basin, both states should share a Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment (TEIA) before physical execution of any project. Moreover, keeping in mind the utmost importance of glaciers being the primary source of the basin, there is an urgent need to declare the Himalayas-Karakoram-Hindukush glaciers as “Protected Area” along with the demilitarization of the second longest glacier on this earth, the Siachen glacier.

    On a micro level, it’s about time we stop being selfish and alter our behaviors for the sake of our future generations. Whether it’s using the minimum possible while doing day-to-day chores to planting more trees to ensure carbon storage and precipitation, we should be doing more than we ever imagined or did. Curtailing our Water Footprint by opting for minimal water intensive choices while eating (less Beef, cheese, chocolates) and shopping (less cotton intensive products) is required.

    A nation-wide, grassroots level awareness campaign based on local contexts and language to be initiated by the government and NGO’s, comprising of an equal representation-participation of women in the discourse. Multi-nationals and even small-scale enterprises should make their mission statements and their CSR campaigns more environmentally friendly and pursue them diligently. The Industrial plants that emit tons of carbon daily and deliberately dump their waste into the rivers should be highly regulated under the polluter pays principle with either carbon taxing or tradeable permits. Media house can operate outside its domain of ratings for a change and facilitate a discourse on the environmental risks that we face. Accordingly, the Government needs to adopt aggressive policy reforms (such as regulating population growth leading to over-consumption and hampering food security) and act beyond the conventional mindset and policy tools, as mentioned earlier.

    Our obsession with civil works projects and reliance on dams will never get us out this mess, unless an alternative socio-centric paradigm incorporating elements of development, management and conservation of water resources is in place. Despite the repeated warnings of Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) that the country will run dry by 2025, we still choose to remain oblivious. Pakistan is forecasted to require an additional 30% additional water in the next two decades to meet growing demands of a growing nation. Whether solutions come from adding more water, increased savings and efficiency, or some combination of the two approaches is a matter that ultimately rests with every segment of our society. Prioritization of demand management in Pakistan undoubtedly will require a fundamental shift in thinking, an earnest mustering of political will, and quite possibly considerable funding (including international and/or bilateral assistance). An “ecocentric” approach to governance that treats the basin as a socio-ecological system and focuses on reducing vulnerability to ecosystem service failures is primarily what we need.

    It goes without saying that this water crisis will further exacerbate in the future due to development projects, deteriorating climatic conditions and increasing temperatures. However, these impending conflict triggers should serve as a unifier for the region to meet these problems head-on by prudent water management system and transboundary governance that not only mitigates the problems, but also satisfies to meet the domestic needs of all the countries. The solution lies in major overhaul of water governance mechanisms from singular to collective solutions. Perhaps a shift from cosmetic and symptomatic measures such as, the construction of the (never-ending) Orange Train to the Battle of Metros between the provinces, is the need of the hour because, frankly, a water-starved country like ours, with foreign reserves of only $20 billion, cannot afford throwing away water worth $70 billion into the sea every year.

    “The writer is a NUST graduate currently doing MSc in Environmental Sciences from Wageningen University and Research”.

    Hashim Zaman –


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