The Emerging Challenges of Water Crises in Gilgit Baltistan
By Zakir Ullah Baig
Climate change is one of the key challenges faced by Pakistan, which has led an adverse impact on the environmental resources of the country, notably, water resources. Gilgit Baltistan (GB)- the headwater catchment of Pakistan is constantly changing due to the shrinking of glaciers and anthropogenic inputs leading to affect the quality and quantity of surface water.
The drastic changes in the economic activity driven by boom in the tourism industry and China Pakistan Economic Corridor have undoubtedly elevated the socio-economic condition but underlie significant environmental challenges on the fragile environment. The region holds pivotal status for Pakistan, as it is the home of some of the world’s largest glaciers i.e Batura, and Baltoro, and the highest peaks like Godwin Austin (K2) and Nanga Parbat. Therefore, considering the importance of these vital resources, it is of utmost importance to consider all the environmental aspects, before initiating any plan and development projects in the region.
Besides this, in recent years, the high-altitude regions across GB have witnessed haphazard growth, which is well known as urban sprawl. The extent of cities has expanded over the years resulting burden on the resources. Lack of viable mechanism for resource management and distribution has induced conflict among the local communities, which is further aggravated by climate change. For instance, during spring season, the availability of water in streams and nullah become limited whereas, increasing demand of water for irrigation, hydel power production, and drinking purpose has led conflict over the water distribution among communities. Such cases have been widely observed these days in various parts of GB.
Apart from water management issues, water quality is also becoming one of the emerging areas of concern for the local dwellers. Major rivers of Pakistan such as the Indus River and local tributaries including Hunza, Gilgit, and Astore rivers are in the verge of contamination. This contamination could mainly driven by mining activities, waste disposal in river systems, lack of sewerage system in the entire region, and other human-based activities. This water contamination is more severe in Gilgit city, which is the center of commercial, and business activities and accommodates a major chunk of the population. Due to lack of sewerage system, many effluents and wastes are directly disposed of into Gilgit river causing severe water deterioration. For instance, the recent report published by Pakistan Council for Research in Water Management (PCRWR), revealed some alarming statistics regarding the water quality by attributing 78% of water unfit for drinking purpose due to biological contamination. The study further reveals that the highest contamination of water was reported in Astore, Skardu, followed by Hunza and Gilgit district. Similarly, Gilgit Baltistan Environmental Protection Agency has also identified water contamination in various drinking water supplies. This is something the government and local bodies need to pay attention, as water resources of this region is the lifeline of the country and approximately 180 million of the country’s population is direct or indirectly dependent on these river systems for drinking, and irrigation purpose. Hence, maintaining the quality of water is essential for both up and downstream populations.
To predict future challenges in water quality and quantity, it is uttermost important to understand the factors governing the spatial variations and hydro-geochemistry of water in mountainous headwater catchments. The current government needs to take incremental steps to control water management and conflict issues through adopting robust tools and strategies. Water policy is already in place however, strict legal enforcement is needed to tackle and address the water issues in GB. Water is a huge asset for Gilgit Baltistan that needs to be harvested and protected wisely considering the notion of sustainable development goals.