At home there is a fast unfolding political and economic crisis. Pakistan is running out of water. We are the third most water stressed country in the world and may run out of it by 2040. And, there may one day be a war over water in South Asia.
This emerging crisis, to a non- specialist, is a classic real-life rendition of late Munir Niazi’s famous couplet (and its poorly done translation by the scribe): Kuj sheher dey loq vi zaalim san, Kuj sanoo maran da shoq wee see (Translation: Though the times were hard and full of challenges, we did our part to make them worse).
Pakistan’s water challenge is manifold. Glaciers that form the source of our rivers are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Our agricultural practices are not efficient. Our crop yields are lower compared to other countries for the same crop types. Many of our cities do not have fully functional water distribution systems or long-term water management plans for production, storage, distribution and waste management. Our river water distribution is uneven and inequitable. Losses in the ‘last mile’ of our irrigation system are alarmingly high with farmers in the vicinity of canals getting only 10-35 % of their water needs from them. All in all these and other issues have been causing us estimated losses of $12 billion every year.
Losses in the ‘last mile’ of our irrigation system are alarmingly high with farmers in the vicinity of canals getting only 10-35 % of their water needs from them. All in all these and other issues have been causing us estimated losses of $12 billion every year.
Folklore has it that Indus River system is the lifeline of Pakistan. Our emotional attachment aside, the World Bank reports that more than half of our today’s agricultural needs are being met by ground water. In addition, ground water also accounts for nearly 70% of our drinking needs and 80% of our industrial needs.
The Indus River system plays a vital role in recharging our underground aquifer and provides 95.8% of the total renewable surface water. Interestingly, nearly three-fourths of all this water comes from outside our borders. It is a double-barreled issue of the depletion of source and India trying to take away our share by building new dams on its side of the Line of Control (LOC). Mr Jinnah, the statesman he was, must have been thinking water when he called Kashmir Pakistan’s jugular!
It is estimated that we are taking out approx. 62 billion cubic meters of ground water every year. This exceeds the estimated recharge rate of our aquifers. These are estimates since we do not have elaborate measuring systems in place for both the extracted ground water and replenishment of the aquifer by the sources like the rainwater.
A possible issue with the rainwater data is best illustrated by drawing a parallel from the United Kingdom. Its landmass is nearly 30% of ours. The UK Met office has a network of 200 automatic weather stations, each located nearly 40 kilometers from the other, and providing hourly updates. Compared to this, Pakistan has around 100 weather observatories in its length and breadth. This thinly spread network, ironically, is also our vanguard on climate change.
Water management and associated legislation and policymaking, today, is a provincial subject. But it’s a national issue that requires singular focus and effort. It is surprising that we quickly created effective national nerve centers for COVID (NCOC) and locust control (NLCC) not long ago. In this case we have National Water Council with headed by the PM and with provincial representation yet little known urgency or action in public view. It seems that the last time and possibly the only time it met was in 2018.
It is estimated that we are taking out approx. 62 billion cubic meters of ground water every year. This exceeds the estimated recharge rate of our aquifers.
One then wonders how does the SIFC plan to provide for water when the Arabs come in with their long-term investment dollars for our agricultural sector? Or, how does the 5Es Board plan to build resilient cities without managing the most critical resource?
A data scientist would agree there is nothing as ‘too many’ or ‘too much’ when setting up data points for climate change indicators, or our different water sources. An IT guy will suggest using an IoT solution and telecom networks to reduce costs and increase efficiency in getting this data. An information systems man will try connecting all these together and using AI etc. to create a bigger picture with a historic profile and different futuristic and predictive capabilities for national policymakers and planners. An entrepreneur sees money in all of this.
Its time we call all four of them in, and make them work with the bureaucrat who has been struggling with it for sometime now. This is how the government can guide new foreign and local investments in IT and technologies like Big Data, AI etc., create local synergies and also solve its governance issues.
Our politicians and policy leaders may choose to classify water as geopolitical, economic or a social issue. But the genesis of our problem lies in an age-old adage “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.” Let us take a leaf out of His Royal Highness MBS’s playbook; the solution to our water crisis needs proactive IT applications, and an ambitious and committed leadership.
We can develop or procure the IT and technology solutions. But do we have the latter?