Wringing More Value From Pakistan’s Water

Farmers tend a crop of rice near Gujranwala City in Punjab State, Pakistan. July 28, 2013 (Photo by Aftab Rizvi) Creative Commons license via Flickr.

By Sunny Lewis

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, February 14, 2019 (Maximpact.com News) – No country’s economy is more water-intensive than Pakistan’s, and this degree of water use, combined with a warming climate, is leading to drought, water scarcity and arsenic-contaminated water in the South Asian nation.

Although there is plenty of water flowing in the Indus River and its tributaries, Pakistan ranks third among countries facing water shortages, according to a 2018 International Monetary Fund report, an alarming situation. The UN Development Programme and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, too, have warned that the country will reach absolute water scarcity by 2025, just six years away.

Too much water can be a disaster as well. When the annual monsoon floods obliterate water management canals and diversion weirs and huge stretches of cropland, they put Pakistan on the brink of a critical shortage of fresh water.

For many Pakistanis the foremost water security concern is inadequate water supply and sanitation services at home, which actually use a small share of the total available water.

Elected Prime Minister of Pakistan last August, Imran Khan appealed to Pakistanis at home and abroad to raise $14 billion to immediately build two dams to store drinking water, irrigate farmland and generate electricity.

Khan urged overseas Pakistanis to contribute generously to the dam fund on an urgent basis due to the potential shortage of water by 2025.

By the end of October 2018, at least $54 million had been raised. Construction on the Diamer Basha Dam on the Indus River and the Mohmand Dam on the Swat River in the northern part of the country is set to begin this year. Completion is expected in the 2014-2015 time frame.

A long line of empty containers await a supply of fresh drinking water to arrive in a town outside Karachi, home to nearly 20 million people with only 165,000 water connections. 2014 (Photo courtesy World Bank)

The Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority lists 26 other hydropower dams planned for the future.

Meanwhile, Pakistan can get more economic, social and environmental benefits from the water it already has, if the country institutes urgent reforms to improve water use efficiency and service delivery, finds a new report from the World Bank.

The report, “Pakistan: Getting More from Water,”explains that while Pakistan, the world’s sixth most populous country, is well-endowed with water, water availability per person is low. Water wastage is high and agricultural yields are low compared to most countries.

Pakistan is home to over 200 million people, a seven-fold increase since the formation of the country in 1947.

The “Getting More from Water” study takes a long-term view of water security – out to 2047 when Pakistan celebrates its 100th anniversary as a nation.

“The 4,000-year-old Indus civilization has its roots in irrigated agriculture,” write Illango Patchamuthu, the World Bank’s Pakistan country director, and Jennifer Sara, the bank’s senior director, Water Global Practice, in their Foreword to the report.

Pakistan still relies heavily on the Indus River for water supply to all sectors of the economy as well as for energy generation. The water goes for irrigation across the semi-arid Indus floodplains, which provide national food security.

The country is among the world’s top 10 producers of wheat, cotton, sugarcane, mango, dates and Kinnow oranges, and is ranked 13th for rice production.

Despite its impressive and continuously growing amounts of agricultural production, the country is struggling with food and water insecurity, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Large amounts of agricultural production and the continuously increasing population place high demands on Pakistan’s water resources. At present, the annual per capita availability of water in Pakistan is estimated at about 1,100 cubic meters; below 1,000 cubic meters, countries begin experiencing chronic water stress, the FAO says.

But while irrigation dominates water use in the country, the four major crops: rice, wheat, sugarcane and cotton, which use 80 percent of the water, contribute only five percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Complicating the country’s water supply situation is the high concentration of arsenic in the groundwater of the Indus River plains.

In a 2017 study, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology: Eawag, showed that arsenic-contaminated groundwater threatens the health of 50 to 60 million people in Pakistan. And, there is growing evidence that natural arsenic levels are increased by extensive irrigation.

The inorganic salts of arsenic are tasteless and odorless, but highly toxic to humans. If ingested over long periods, even low concentrations can damage health, including disorders of liver, cardiovascular and kidney function, skin problems, and various types of cancer.

Pakistanis in many areas are unaware of the risk because their groundwater wells have never been screened for arsenic. Concentrations below 10 micrograms per liter (μg/L) are considered safe for arsenic in drinking water by the World Health Organization. In Pakistan, the official health guideline for arsenic is five times higher, 50 μg/L.

Groundwater use in Pakistan has increased fivefold in the last 50 years, raising concerns about its sustainability. Yet, there is little ownership or management of subterranean water.

Research conducted by the International Water Management Institute suggests that, “given support, farmer organizations could maintain a network of instrumented groundwater observation wells, use sophisticated tools to maintain an inventory of tube wells, and create a sustainable and responsive groundwater management system.”

“Water security in Pakistan is reaching a critical point that demands urgent attention and reform,” said  Patchamuthu. “Boosting irrigation productivity, while paying more attention to the social and environmental aspects of water management, is critical.”

William Young, author of the World Bank report, said, “New dams can help improve water security but will not address the most pressing water problems that Pakistan faces. Irrigation systems need modernizing; hydromet systems should be expanded; and urban water infrastructure, especially for wastewater, requires major investment.”

The country’s poor water management is conservatively estimated to cost four percent of GDP or around US$12 billion a year for domestic water supplies and sanitation, including the costs of floods and droughts, the World Bank report finds.

Rivers, lakes and the extensive Indus Delta are severely degraded, undermining important ecosystem services. Poor sanitation and a lack of wastewater treatment cause water-borne diseases that kill 40,000 children each year.

“Waterborne diseases are a leading cause of suffering and death in Pakistan, reflecting widespread contamination of water supplies by sewage effluent,” the report states.

“Poor water supply, sanitation, and hygiene contribute to high levels of childhood stunting, undermining human capital,” warns the World Bank report. “Women and children are the most vulnerable, especially in rural areas where sanitation is particularly inadequate, and most water supplies are contaminated.”

Solving Pakistan’s water problems “…will require strong collaboration between federal and provincial governments and other stakeholders,” Patchamuthu said. “The objective must be to strengthen water governance and strategic water planning to build resilience in the face of a changing climate and growing water demands.”

“The National Water Policy provides a sound basis for reform, but provincial water policies need much attention, and the underpinning legal framework is incomplete and needs strengthening,” Young advised.

Irrigation water use can increase to meet growing food demands if efficiency improvements are made, the report finds.

Although climate change and transboundary issues are a hindrance for Pakistan’s water sector, the greatest challenges and opportunities are internal, not external, to Pakistan. So, improving water use efficiency and productivity, delivery of water services in cities and in irrigation, and addressing environmental sustainability are the most pressing needs, according to the World Bank’s new analysis.

As Pakistanis enjoy increasing wealth, changes in their diet will impact commodity demands and crop choices. The report advises that agricultural subsidies must be reformed to reflect the real value of commodity exports and of water.

The report was prepared by the World Bank with external contributions from local and international water experts, including the International Water Management Institute and the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Featured Image: With over 200 million people depending on depleting water reserves, it is time the government and the people of Pakistan find sustainable solutions. August 2018 (Photo courtesy Pakissan)

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