Averting impending water crisis through climate-smart management in Pakistan

Pakistan is heading fast towards the worst state of water crisis. If not tamed through viable policy measures and mass-scale across-the-board awareness for water conservation and its sane use at all scales, the grueling crisis is bound to devour the very foundations of socio-economic sustainability.

Besides, overall sustainability of economic growth lives of people and their livelihoods are already at stake.

In the face of the population growth, changes in land-use practices, persisting unsustainable farming practices, inefficient use of water in industrial and domestic sectors, and the potential change in climatic conditions, traditional water supply solutions are not sufficiently robust to provide adequate security of supply into the future.

Spreading urbanisation also means more pavements and less chance for water to percolate into the ground, according to Daanish Mustafa, professor of water-resources geography and environmental management at King’s College London who co-authored the 2013 report “Understanding Pakistan’s water-security nexus”.

In December 2013, a U.S.-based policy think-tank the World Resources Institute ranked Pakistan among the 36 most water-stressed countries in the world. Because, demand for water in the country has exceeded the available amount during a year due to over-exploitation of the water resources available in any form. Besides, available water resources have become significantly contaminated and not fit for use.

According to the Planning Commission of Pakistan’s reports based on data from the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), in 1951 per capita water availability in Pakistan was 5,650 cubic meters. By 2010, that figures had plunged to 1,000 cubic meters and is expected to further fall to 800 cubic meters by 2025, when Pakistan’s population is expected to hit 221 million, the report said.

The World Water Day – 2016 is being marked on March 22 under the theme ‘Better Water – Better Jobs across the world including Pakistan. The Day aims at drawing attention of the global community on the unprecedented significance of the freshwater to the sustainability of lives of all sorts of living beings and the mother earth itself and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.

We must realise that water is the essential building block of the life. Yet, it is more than just a necessary need to quench thirst or protect health. Water is equally vital for creating jobs and supporting economic, social, and human development in a sustainable manner.

Deleterious Impacts of the global warming-induced anthropogenic climate change on the country’s water sector has further exacerbated the state of already shrinking water resources.

Shifting weather patterns, erratic and decreasing rainy days, rapidly melting glaciers, shrinking river flows and depleting groundwater resources combined with galloping population in the country have already worsened the risk of the impending water crisis.

Groundwater resources, used to supply the country’s growing population with water for agriculture, drinking and sanitation, are depleting rapidly. Such underground reserves usually are replenished naturally by rain and melting snow.

Any decline in the groundwater recharge could have a severe impact on water available for drinking, sanitation and hygiene in a country where over 1.2 million people die every year from water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, malaria, and typhoid.

The persistent deterioration of surface and groundwater sources, on which people rely for their livelihoods, drinking, sanitation and daily domestic needs, means that water and sanitation pressures will simply grow from bad to worse.

Nearly 1.1 million agricultural wells in the country are “among the major causes of the rapidly depleting groundwater levels.

According to Pakistan Water Gateway, a non-governmental water-research portal, groundwater levels in the country are dropping by three feet annually.

For instance, using the sprawling city of Lahore in northeastern Pakistan as an example, the Gateway notes that 20 years ago water used to be extracted from a depth of between 20 and 40 feet. Today, wells must reach 800 feet to get sufficient amounts of useable water.

However, the government need to enforce polices measures to regulate the indiscriminate groundwater extraction by creating water (protection) zones and introducing water-saving technology in the agriculture sector to boost food security.

Several studies have already warned that the water crisis can also prove a crushing blow to the country’s food security and deepen current state of hunger, mal-nutrition, poverty, health diseases to new heights.

According to the 2010 agricultural census carried out by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, nearly 64 percent of the country’s population lives in rural areas and eke out a living from agricultural activities such as growing crops, rearing livestock and transportation of agricultural products to market.

But unsustainable use of water and mining of the fast depleting groundwater resources for agricultural activities and domestic use can badly harm agro-based economy and the people’s lives in future.

For instance, across Punjab province and two districts of neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, groundwater supplies are depleting at the rate of 6 to 21 inches a year, according to a study carried out by the International Waterlogging and Salinity Research Institute (IWASRI), part of the Pakistani government’s Water and Power Development Authority.

And, if the current trend of water depletion continues in Punjab and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – two regions that are home to 80 percent of Pakistan’s farming population – food production and farming income will suffer.

Water and food security experts have already cautioned that the availability and accessibility of food may become difficult for over 60 percent of the populace in the next 10 years if immediate steps aren’t taken to recharge the aquifer and harvest flood and rainwaters.

Inadequate planning for sustainable and efficient water management and usage programs/practices is exposing the country to water-related threats from the climate change and putting the country’s agriculture, industry and hydropower sectors at risk.

In 1945, the Indus River system that feeds Pakistan’s agriculture flowed at 194 million acre-feet (MAF) a year. Now that has dropped to 100-115 MAF a year, according to reports of the Indus River System Authority.

According to an study of the International Waterlogging and Salinity Research Institute (IWASRI), part of the Pakistani government’s Water and Power Development Authority, about 115 MAF of water flows through Pakistan each year. But the country’s existing storage capacity is only 14 MAF, meaning it can only store enough water to last 30 days. The international standard is 120 days.

Water experts suggest that the country requires a minimum storage capacity of 40 percent or 46 MAF of around 115 million acre-feet of water available in the Indus river system annually. But the country’s storage capacity is only seven percent or eight MAF and is decreasing due to sediment build-up in reservoirs.

This gives Pakistan a stored water supply, adequate to meet its needs, of just 30 days. By contrast, “carryover capacity” in other countries ranges from 200 days in India to 1,000 days in Egypt.

In the country, however, planners and policy makers across different sectors, including agriculture and industry, energy and health now have a daunting challenge before them of increasing the country’s water storage capacity.

Above all, efficient and climate-smart integrated water management in agriculture, industrial and domestic sectors is indispensable to overcome the fast approaching water crisis.

This calls for integration of urban and rural water systems with appropriate uses for rainwater, groundwater, surface water, wastewater, stormwater and potable water. Long term planning and water-sensitive design is vital to providing the integrated approach.

Without actively addressing inefficient water management issues and adoption of climate-smart water use/management practices, the country is most likely to become increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of reduced water availability for socio-economic sectors.

This can increased susceptibility to flood events and urban heat island impacts and massive degradation of environment, waterways, coastal areas and other natural assets.

Nevertheless, without further investment in new sources of water, water efficiency programmes for efficient use of all water resources, the country is unlikely to achieve water, food and energy security to meeting water, food and energy needs of the present and future generations for decades to come.

The country desperately needs more reservoirs to increase its water storage capacity and launch of conservation awareness campaigns, the introduction of less water thirsty crop varieties and more efficient irrigation technologies and practices.

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