water shortages in pakistan

Written by Muhammad Hamza Sharif 7:18 pm Articles, Pakistan, Published Content

Water Shortages in Pakistan: The Urgency for Water Governance

An increasing population, an explosive neighbor, and ill-equipped water management can positively damage Pakistan’s water security. Mr. Muhammad Hamza Sharif applauds the initiatives of the PTI government and recommends institutions to raise awareness of the water issue. He also hopes for water governance to be given due importance.
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Hamza Sharif is currently studying mechanical engineering at HITEC University Taxila. His areas of interest are geopolitics, current affairs, and astrophysics.

Water Resources

Water is the vital factor that helps planet earth sustain life. It is the main constituent of the earth’s hydrosphere and essential for all forms of life. The world only has 3% freshwater; the rest is sea/ocean water which cannot be used unless treated. Out of the freshwater available, we have only access to about 0.5% of it (flowing in rivers, deep underground, and in lakes). The remaining 2.5% is locked up high in the glaciers, amongst the atmosphere, and absorbed within the soil.

Climate Change and Water Shortages in Pakistan

Most water resources seem to be running dry at a quick pace due to climate change and other factors by human activity causing egregious distortion in the natural order by its use. According to many think tanks, future wars will be fought on causes related to water – and given the current water crisis in Pakistan, such wars do not seem to be that far.

Water disputes over the Nile River between African countries, and Turkey, Syria, and Iraq fighting over the Euphrates are just two examples. Water shortages in Pakistan will get worse as time goes by if corrective measures are not taken. The scarcity threshold per capita annual water availability is 1000 cubic meters.

In 1947, Pakistan had 5600 cubic meters per capita annual availability; this plunged down to lesser than 1000 cubic meters in the present. The current demand for water in Pakistan is 163 km3 and it is estimated to increase to 225 km3 in the year 2050 as our population will also have increased by then. With this data available to us, it is vital that we start taking action now to deal with the water crisis of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s major source of water is the Indus River in which many upper and lower riparian tributaries fall in on their way to the Arabian Sea. It originates from the Himalayas, flows through Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir, and then down through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. From this geographical analysis, we can understand the importance the Kashmir area holds for Pakistan.

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India has played foul with the water supply of the region. Geography, in terms of water supply, has not been too kind with Pakistan by keeping the source basins of its rivers in the Indian territory. Since independence along with the Kashmir issue, water disputes have remained simultaneously awake.

Indus Water Treaty

In 1947, a standstill agreement was approved between Pakistan and India regarding the flow of water through the Indus River and its tributaries. A year later, on April 1st, the standstill agreement expired and a new solution was required. Correspondingly, India shut the water supply to Western Punjab (Pakistan), which caused great panic amongst the masses and Pakistan’s agricultural land faced irreparable damage.

The Dominion Accord of May 4th, 1948 was brought into play and required India to provide water to the Pakistani parts of the basin in return for annual payments. This was the next temporary solution between both countries. On the 19th of September, 1960, Pakistan (Ayub Khan) and India (Nehru) signed the Indus Water Treaty, brokered by the World Bank.

The main pick-up point of the treaty was that the Western Rivers were given to Pakistan (Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus), whereas the Eastern Rivers were given to India (Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas). Both countries could use the rivers assigned to them for consumption purposes. The treaty also required that both sides maintain a Permanent Indus Commission which would cater to solving any disputes between both countries in the future.

The treaty was a good tool to safeguard the water security of both countries. Since according to the treaty, Pakistan had to give up its rights on the Eastern Rivers, it was compensated with grants and loans. Initially, the World Bank requested India to fulfill the compensation itself but India declined.

So, the World Bank put forth the Indus Basin Development Fund Agreement which involved Australia, Canada, West Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the World Bank itself to fund Pakistan with grants and loans that were to be used for the construction of dams, canals and storage facilities on the western rivers of Pakistan.

The Issue of Water Scarcity

Water security is also a major cause of why so many uprisings have risen between Pakistan and India w.r.t. Jammu and Kashmir. If Jammu and Kashmir are taken by India, the Indians might interfere with the supply – causing extreme water shortages in Pakistan. The river system in this region is separated primarily between Pakistan and India, both having 47% and 39% respectively, with some parts in Tibet and Eastern Afghanistan.

Some of India’s rogue and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideology-affiliated ministers till today suggest stopping Pakistan’s water supply. Most importantly, India has violated the Indus Water Treaty on a number of occasions. The Kishanganga dam’s construction was started in 2007 by India. In 2018, the construction was completed.

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The dam sits on the tributary that connects to the river Jhelum. The Kishanganga dam produces 330MW and holds up to 18.3 mega cubic meters. According to the treaty, this is illegal as the river Jhelum was assigned to Pakistan, and hence India had no right to consume or stop the flow of any of its tributaries.

Then we have the Baglihar Hydel Power Project which was started by India in 1999 and was operational by 2008. This dam sits on yet another Pakistani-assigned river, Chenab. Last year in mid-2020, India reduced the water flow of the river Chenab when Covid-19 was at full bloom, another violation of the treaty.

When 90% of your food and 65% of your employment depends upon agriculture, the leaders should have secured water security for future generations. Pakistan should have constructed dams, water reservoirs, and canals to store and allow easy access to water across Pakistan.

Turkey and Armenia

The water dispute between Turkey and Armenia serves as a prime example of good cooperation regarding water flow and quantity. The Kara River originates from Turkey, whilst the Akhuryan River originates from Armenia, both of them are tributaries of the Arpacay River, which runs along the border between Armenia and Turkey. The treaties signed regarding those waters are from the time of the Soviet Union. Even after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Turkey continue to honor those agreements.

Environmentalists from the Armenian side have detected poor water quality. Water reservoirs of the Armenian side have been heavily polluted with toxic materials as well as heavy metals. This is a great threat to the livelihood of the population; toxic water can not only affect human life directly but also indirectly by ruining crop soil and destroying marine life.

Across the border, Turkey is facing difficulties in controlling its water quality as chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers sometimes seep into their reservoirs. This is causing extreme salinization of the water. Pakistan’s policies although have been a better champion of humanity, it is the Indian side that proves to be hostile and threatening on most occasions.

Code Red

According to NASA, the Indus basin is the second most over-stressed aquifer in the world – which is already an indicator of looming water shortages in Pakistan. To be an over-stressed aquifer means that the source is being used up faster than it is being replenished. When the air around us is heated, it has an increased capacity for holding water. Then we have our glaciers melting at high speeds than ever before.

Since we had not invested in building dams over our rivers, water from the glaciers quickly melts away and flows right into the Arabian Sea, mixing with all the salty seawater, which could’ve been used for generating electricity. The total demand for electricity in Pakistan is 25000MW. Pakistan generates around 10000MW electricity from its hydroelectric projects across Pakistan.

A big reason for our aquifers to be under great water stress is due to our agricultural activities. Tube wells are to blame. There are 1.2 million tube wells in Pakistan (85% are in Punjab, 6.4% are in Sindh, 3.8% are in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and 4.8% are in Baluchistan). India has about 5 million tube wells. This colossal number of tube wells has depleted the aquifers at top rates.

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60 billion m3 of water is pumped out of the ground; this has caused groundwater to drop below 6m across 50% area of Punjab. Most tube well water is wasted as some of it doesn’t even reach the intended crops and runs off into rivers or seeps below the soil. It is necessary that the government of Pakistan take hold of the use of tube wells and encourage farmers to deploy mechanisms that do not cause water shortages while farming.

The use of sprinklers would be a much better method. Pakistan is facing egregious food security. Our canal irrigation system is the best well-spread setup but unfortunately, it is also badly affecting our fertile land hub in the country because of ill planning and mismanagement of its use.

Due to industrial waste, China is facing acute problems regarding water quality but the government in 2017 emphasized the construction of an “ecological civilization”, with the goal of building a “Beautiful China”. They have constructed a complete network of water reservoirs and dams (Three Gorges Dam) for water and food security. Pakistan should employ the same pattern and make great efforts to make itself water secure for the future.

Call for Action

With a burst of population, water demand has drastically increased ever since the 1970s. In case of water shortages in Pakistan, the country’s capacity to store water in its reservoirs is only 30 days, which is only 10% of the total demand. India has a capacity of over 170 days, Egypt for 700 days, and the US for 900 days. Our government should focus on improvising irrigation techniques, especially for farmlands so water is not drastically wasted.

Former Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar took up a wonderful initiative to spread awareness of water security. We need more of our higher authorities to encourage people to save water and not use it in a profligate manner. It is also up to schools and teachers to spread awareness amongst children to use water economically.

The present government focused on countering the environmental challenges by systematic plantation of trees and reduced use of plastic. This government has also brought in new programs for farmers for the utilization of water reforms. The construction and special emphasis of already under construction and new Megaprojects for water security (Bhasha, Dasu, Mohmand, Mirani, Kurram, Tangi, etc.) are another milestone of this government to improve water management and electricity, as both play a vital role in securing water security.

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