Practicable Solution

Nov 22 2018 | 04:09:16
Water is a capital asset that supports services that maintain the conditions of life. These include provisioning services that have direct inputs into livelihoods and the economy and regulatory services like floods, disease control and cultural services. Together they create eco-systems that support life on Earth. This makes water the most valuable resource on earth but despite this its value has not been determined thus far. It is predicted that the global water demand will increase uo to 55 percent by 2050, while reserves will go down. If current usage trends don't change, the world will have only 60 percent of the water it needs in 2030. As the demand for water increases and the planet gets thirstier, societies around the globe will face the challenge of difficult tradeoffs between uses of water.

In Pakistan, water is becoming an increasingly scare commodity and water-related challenges, in terms of per capita availability as well as the quality of water, have grown over the seven decades since independence and are now posing a threat to human security. Recently, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) delivered a dire warning about water shortage. Severe water scarcity is already having a negative impact on the country’s public health and economy. Over 80 percent of the water supplied is considered unsafe and water shortage and water-borne diseases are resulting in substantial losses to GDP.

Pakistan receives 80% of its surface water from the Indus River Basin. Approximately 90 percent of Pakistan’s water is used for agriculture, with 60 percent of its population directly involved in agriculture and livestock, and 80 percent of exports based on these sectors.

Many underground water reserves are already running low, while rainfall patterns are predicted to become more erratic with climate change. If the population continues to grow at the present rate, the numbers are expected to be in the range of 400 million by 2050 and more groundwater will be needed for farming, industry and personal consumption. Urgent steps are therefore needed to create a balance between demand and finite supply to avert a deficit that may cause a catastrophe on many fronts: crops could fail, ecosystems could break down, industries could collapse, disease and poverty could worsen and violent conflicts over access to water could become more frequent.

Water use in Pakistan is largely unregulated and often wasteful. Pollution of water is often ignored and goes unpunished. The rate of extraction of water for agriculture is higher than recharge values, resulting in depletion of aquifers and lowering of the water table. Climate change is likely to exacerbate the situation with higher temperatures, more erratic weather patterns and disruption in the precipitation regime.

While shortage of water in Pakistan is a fact, deficits in internal management have aggravated Pakistan’s water woes. There are many failures in developing management policies and tools to address water issues. An integrated water resource management approach needs to be taken to address the needs of the major user sectors, such as agriculture, industry and households. There are challenges of relative abundance during four months (June to September). This is when the rains triggered by the monsoon winds result in floods. There is water scarcity during the remaining eight months marked by reduced flows in the rivers and dwindling flows in the three major reservoirs. Water is critical for both irrigation and energy. All these issues need to be addressed by the government on a priority basis.

The Ministry of Water Resources has limited capacity for policy coordination. Water-related institutions such as WAPDA, the Indus River System Authority, the National Flood Commission, and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources under the Ministry of Science and Technology, operate in silos and some of them face technical, financial and human resource limitations. There is also no legal mechanism for coordination between the federal and provincial governments after the 18th Amendment and this is resulting in management challenges in the rapidly and chaotically growing urban areas. Water charges for irrigation and other users do not even cover the cost of maintaining the water infrastructure and there is no governance of ground-water which is being extracted unsustainably.

The mismanagement of water not only complicates the challenge of availability but also contributes to deterioration in the quality of water both in the rural and urban areas with negative economic and health consequences. Better management practices, especially in the agriculture sector that consumes nearly 90% of all available water, can help in alleviating our water woes for some time but unless cropping patterns are not made compatible with water availability, an optimal value of crops per drop will not be achieved.

Another major concern is the decline in the per capita availability of water and water losses including transmission losses. The quantity of water in absolute terms has declined due to the loss of three eastern rivers from 1970 onwards, consequent to the completion of the civil works for storing and transporting flows from the western rivers to regions served by the eastern rivers. Our experts have also observed a decline in the flows of the western rivers which is perhaps due to the silting of the rivers and prolonged droughts in the catchment areas of those rivers across the border. Apart from that, decrease in per capita availability of water has occurred because of the over five-fold increase in our population and poor maintenance of the water infrastructure, especially the canals and channels. The most effective way of reducing losses in transmission of water is the lining of canals and channels that though costly would be a worthwhile expenditure.

Pakistan is also short on storage capacity and needs to build reservoirs. Large dams are one option but are costly to build, require expensive maintenance, (especially for de-silting), displace populations and contribute to loss of habitat for plant and aquatic life and entail losses of water caused by evaporation.

Some of the alternative ways of storing water include construction of small dams along the irrigation network, recharging ground water aquifers, proper maintenance of rain-fed lakes and rural ponds, recycling of water used by factories and rain harvesting by the municipal authorities, the corporate sector and individuals.

However, given Pakistan’s extremely inadequate water storage capacity and the seasonal abundance versus the scarcity syndrome, the building of a few medium sized and large dams appears to be unavoidable but they must be planned, designed and maintained according to the guidelines proposed by the International Commission of Dams.

Unsustainable development pathways and governance failures have affected the quality and availability of water resources, compromising their capacity to generate social and economic benefits. The recently approved National Water Policy (NWP) addresses the entire range of subjects concerning the integrated development and management of the country’s freshwater resources as well as the challenges of Pakistan’s water resources. These include dependence on a single river basin whose major tributaries originate outside the country’s borders. The drastic decline in the supply and deterioration in the quality of freshwater due to multiple geophysical and demographic factors must also be taken into account. There is a need for all-out efforts to enhance water use efficiency and reduce the demands of the main user sectors, especially agriculture.There is also a need for resolution of inter- rovincial disputes over the upper and lower riparian regions; the modernization of water infrastructure; and , above all, mitigation of the negative impacts of climate change, most of which relate to the supply of freshwater.

The National Water Policy (NWP) is mostly silent on the gender dimension of water but otherwise serves as a guiding document for water management. Given Pakistan’s federal structure and the sharing of responsibilities relating to water resource development and management by the federal and provincial governments, much will now depend on how the provinces elaborate on the outlined principles and guidelines to meet their special needs and circumstances.

A Water Charter, duly signed by the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers of the provinces, highlights the seriousness of “the looming shortage of water “which poses “a grave threat to (the country’s) food, water and energy security”. It proclaims “the commitment and intent of the federation and the provinces to make efforts to avert the crisis”. Both the National Water Policy and the Water Charter underline the urgency of policies and action plans to mitigate the profound adverse impacts of climate change on water resources and Pakistan’s food, water, and energy security. It now remains to be seen how quickly the provinces develop the policy instruments to support the 33 objectives of the NWP and implement them with due diligence to make Pakistan water secure. The key to the future management of water in Pakistan is scripted in the NWP but will require political will and thought leadership to make it operational in letter and spirit