Pakistan’s Thirst for Water: Towards a National Sustainable Water Policy

Being the world’s 6th most populous country, Pakistan is home to about 210 million people. The growing population reduces average water availability every day. In 2017, Asian Development Bank reported that the agriculture sector of Pakistan consumes 93% of the water resources and contributes 21% – one-fourth – to the Gross Domestic Product. Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources published a report titled “Water requirements of major crops in Central Punjab,” that has mentioned that over 60% of water is lost in transmission and applications. This implies that the agriculture sector that consumes 93% of water resources wastes two-third of it.

Water scarcity will affect agricultural activities in Pakistan leading to lower yields for a growing population, a matter of food security. Virtual water trade is exploiting our groundwater. Scientific journal “Nature” claims in a published paper of 2017 that Pakistan was the biggest exporter of groundwater in 2010. Wheat, rice and cotton are among the top five water-intensive crops and these are the most cultivated crops in Pakistan.

In a national newspaper, Dawn, it is stated that at the time of independence, per capita water availability was 5 thousand cubic meters, and now it has fallen below 1 thousand cubic meters. Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources has predicted a severe water shortage by 2025 that will leave Pakistan dry if no measures are taken. It is not the first time international and national institutions are addressing water scarcity issues. World Bank issued a report in 2005 named “Pakistan’s water economy: running dry,” but we made no effective water policy.

Pakistan relies on Indus River, a single basin for its freshwater resources. Furthermore, being a semi-arid country, Pakistan receives an annual rainfall of less than 500 mm, most of which end up in a runoff. Groundwater pumping has also crossed the sustainable limit of consumption. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, Lahore is facing an annual reduction of 0.5 meters of the water table for the past 30 years. Urbanization has proved salt on injury as people are moving from rural areas increasing water consumption of limited water resources of urban areas. Wastewater is discharged without treatment, making groundwater unfit for use and biodiversity of water bodies is at stake.

The situation becomes more critical when water scarcity is accompanied by climate change as Pakistan ranks 7th in Global Climate Risk Index. According to the task force on climate change, 0.6°C rise of temperature was observed from 1901 to 2000 in Pakistan. Asian Development Bank writes an increase of 18-32% rainfall in the Monsoon period throughout 1960-2007 and sea-level rise of 1.1mm per year in the past century. Glaciers, a freshwater resource are retreating because of global warming. Rising temperatures and sea levels, droughts, flood events all are contributing to the instability of the country.

There is no single solution to the problem. Multiple strategies must be developed to tackle the problem. Policy reforms and good governance are the biggest challenges. The agriculture sector must be the focus to address water consumption as 93% of water is consumed by this sector. There is a dire need for maintenance of canals to decrease losses and metering infrastructure for pricing the quantity of water consumed. Drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation must be introduced for the efficient use of water.

Rainwater harvesting is an attractive way to store rainwater that can be used for many household purposes other than drinking. Virtual water trade should be given due importance and our focus of exports must be changed from water-intensive products to water-efficient products. Desalination solves water shortage in coastal areas and rising sea levels. It is the need of the hour to find long-term sustainable solutions to the problem or otherwise, its effects will be devastating.

Recommended Reading

  • Climate change profile of Pakistan, Asian development bank report 2017
  • Water sustainability in Pakistan- key issues and challenges, State bank of Pakistan’s annual report 2016-2017
  • Pakistan getting from water, World Bank report 2019
  • Virtual water export dries Pakistan from Daily Times written by M Arshad Rafiq, May 15, 2019
  • Over 60% of irrigation water is wasted from The News International written by Myra Imran, September 24, 2018
  • Pakistan likely to face water crisis from newspaper Dawn written by Zahid Hussain, March 28, 2018

About the Authors

Eza Tahir is a student of M.Phil. in Environmental Sciences at Sustainable Development Study Center, Government College University Lahore. She has completed her bachelor’s degree from Lahore College for Women University, Lahore (Pakistan). She has also participated in environmental awareness campaigns and community service programs to address the environmental issues of Pakistan in collaboration with several international organizations.

Naveed Anwar is an Environmentalist and an active researcher with a special focus on Climate Change, Sustainable Development, Air Pollution, Water Scarcity, and Clean Energy. He possesses master and undergraduate degree in Environmental Sciences along with a Postgraduate Diploma in Environmental Laws from the premier national institutes of Pakistan. Naveed is currently teaching and doing research at the Sustainable Development Study Center, Government College University, Lahore. He has published several international peer-reviewed Journal Articles and Book Chapters on the themes and Environmental Policy – Climate Change and Air pollution Mitigation.

About Eza Tahir

Eza Tahir is a student of M.Phil. in Environmental Sciences at Sustainable Development Study Center, Government College University Lahore. She has completed her bachelor’s degree from Lahore College for Women University, Lahore (Pakistan). She has also participated in environmental awareness campaigns and community service programs to address the environmental issues of Pakistan in collaboration with several international organizations.
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