“Under the present situation, in the next six to seven years, Pakistan can be a water-starved country,” stated Pakistan’s Minister for Water and Power, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, in February 2015. Pakistan is hardly alone in its water struggles, as water scarcity has developed into an emerging global issue that affects more than one billion people. However, Pakistan owes this severe scarcity to mismanagement of water resources (especially excessive use of groundwater) and a failure to build new reservoirs. The crisis has been further aggravated by climate change, prioritizing agriculture, and a lack of informed planning. Pakistan needs to implement policies to alleviate this situation before it’s too late. Thus, there is urgent need for a nationwide informational campaign advocating water conservation, development of new water sources, and resolution of both domestic and international water disputes.
The foremost step in this process should be creating awareness among the people about water conservation methods. A campaign should be launched targeting people from different segments of the population, involving social media and local political authorities. The focus should especially be on populations dependent on agriculture for livelihood, since Pakistan dedicates about 97 percent of its surface water resources to irrigation and agriculture. Farmers should be educated about new irrigation technologies and methods such as drip irrigation, as well as more efficient farming practices.
Second, new reservoirs should be built, with an emphasis on the construction of smaller dams rather than indulging in large and difficult construction projects like the Kalabagh dam, which has become a controversial issue. Waterfalls and snowfall could be harnessed as alternative sources of water. There is also need for a new department under the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) to identify and map areas where indiscriminate abstraction of groundwater occurs, and develop a strategy to regulate it. Institutional coordination between provincial and federal agencies should be enhanced for the formulation and implementation of these water-related projects.
Third, Pakistan should resolve water conflicts domestically as well as with neighbor India. Water has become a source of provincial conflict in Pakistan. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh have accusing the federal government of exploiting water resources to fuel industrial and agricultural growth in Punjab. Gwadar—a central city for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—is facing a growing water crisis, with approximately 100,000 people lacking access to clean water. To address this, a council including members from all provinces could be created to amicably settle disputes related to water distribution. The council may be comprised of representatives from Ministry of Water and Power (especially WAPDA and Federal Flood Commission), Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Pakistan Meteorological Department, Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, as well as local officials from provincial water and agriculture departments, political parties, and technical experts.
Water scarcity has also exacerbated tensions with India. The water dispute between Pakistan and India dates back to the early days of independence. There have been attempts to settle the dispute, through the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) in 1960. However, disagreements continue with Pakistan having taken India to the Court of Arbitration at the Hague over a hydropower project on Jhelum River. The water dispute between Pakistan and India is a long-drawn and contentious issue. However, incremental confidence-building measures could be put in place to improve the situation. For instance, the Indus Commission, which has representatives from both countries, should take up joint areas of concern for discussion, such as effects of climate change on water.
Overall, water scarcity is a problem of both domestic and international security for Pakistan, and it must be addressed in a serious and pragmatic fashion. Being a predominantly agrarian country, the management and fortification of water resources is an urgent issue. The government has begun drafting a National Water Policy in response to concerns about water scarcity, however concerns remain over whether the policy will adequately address the problem of excessive groundwater extraction, and equitable water distribution between provinces. The recommendations outlined above could assist in easing some of these concerns.
Image: Rizwan Tabassum-AFP, Getty