Water worries

Pakistan will become a water-scarce country in five years

Water worries
During the last few years, politicians and policy institutes of Pakistan have increasingly been talking about a difficult water future. Global projections are showing Pakistan as a highly water stressed and vulnerable country with low capacity to cope with water emergencies. This report briefly reviews the water scarcity issues faced by the country.

In the international context, Pakistan is a water stressed country and this stress is multi-dimensional. The Land and Water Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization developed a global water information system called AQUASTAT from 2005 onwards. The data comes from the public sectors of individual countries. The “physical water stress index” developed by Prof M Falkenmark (1996) has been adopted by the United Nations for the global comparison of national water availability. An area is said to be experiencing water stress when its annual water supplies fall below 1,700 cubic meters per person. A region is said to face water scarcity when supplies fall below 1,000 cubic meters per person, and there is absolute water scarcity when supplies drop below 500 cubic meters a year. Currently, Pakistan’s average water availability is about 1100 m3/capita/year, thanks to the good rains during the last 10 years. It can drop by 20% during a dry period like 2000-2002. Hence, Pakistan is at the margin of moving from a water stressed to water scarce region. Only a 10% increase in population will put us in permanent water scarcity and make us one of the “water crowded regions” of the world, according to another indicator of Falkenmark. About 70% of the surface water resources of Pakistan are generated outside the country, putting it at an increased level of vulnerability. Pakistan also faces economic water scarcity, because of high economic dependency on the water resources and limited investment and lack of available management options to meet the demands.

In the national context, Pakistan is facing an increasing demand supply gap in all water use sectors, decreasing capacity to regulate the surface flows, high uncertainty due to extreme events, water pollution, depletion of groundwater resources and low benefits from the available water resources.

A gradual decrease in manageable water quantities is the most important regulatory problem. The official data shows a decrease of about 10 maf in the water diverted to the provinces after 1999. The three highest government agencies – the Planning Commission, the Ministry of Water and Power and the Indus River System Authority – acknowledge a 10 maf reduction in river inflows and canal diversions. It leads to a shortfall of 14 maf in the committed water to the provinces (about 100 maf supplied against 114 maf promised).

The natural seasonal water imparity is high in Pakistan. Rivers receive 75% of the flows during four summer months and 25% during rest of the year, while, water demand is 60% in summer and 40% in winter. Currently, about 13 maf water is shifted from the brief water surplus period to the much longer water stress period.

On February 25, IRSA unanimously asked the government to freeze the entire public sector development program (PSDP) for five years and construct major water reservoirs to store 22 maf water on a war footing, “to put an end to the misery faced by the country.” This unusual agreement among provincial representatives was a departure from the political position taken by the Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies. It shows the gravity of the expected water shortages and urgency of the need to get out of a long provincial deadlock. IRSA also acknowledges an increase in river losses from 9 maf in in the 1980s to 20 maf in this decade. This should be taken as a serious regulatory failure.
Pakistan entered the 21st Century with two years of severe drought. Then there were four floods in 10 years

The water stress in other sectors is not less severe. An environmental-flow study of the Federal Flood Commission and the World Bank in 2005 proposed a continuous release of 5,000 cusecs from Kotri barrage. About half of this water would come from a proposed “new storage” on the river Indus. No mechanism was evolved to implement that plan.

The water available to protect water bodies, limited wetlands and ecological systems (like mangroves) has gradually been limited to a few months. Groundwater is depleting in quantity and quality. In freshwater areas, groundwater is over-exploited and eventually the aquifer is recharged with polluted and untreated effluent from agriculture, industry and domestic use. The uncontrolled use of bad quality groundwater is causing health problems and land degradation. Pakistan has missed its millennium development goals for drinking water supply and sanitation. Water bound diseases, especially Hepatitis B and C, have increased exponentially.

Contrary to common belief, the net water used in agriculture has no final wastage in the areas where ground water can be used. According to the official data, the actual quantity of water applied at the farm level is more than the water diverted to the canals. The groundwater recharged from the rains and irrigation surplus is used more than once. The real issue faced by the agriculture sector is low crop yield, leading to a low productivity of water.
People wait to be evacuated after the 2014 flood in Jhang

Pakistan entered the 21st Century with two years of severe drought. The annual rivers flows from 2000 to 2002 were only 67% (98 MAF) of the average flows, while water supplied to the provinces was 70% of the commitment. Then there were four floods within 10 years. The mega floods of 2010 were caused by an unusual weather system developed over the northern areas and large cloud bursts. In 2011, heavy rains in the Sindh province flooded large agriculture areas for months. The late monsoon at the desert station was recorded at 1,100 mm against the normal of 60 mm. During 2014, monsoon caused floods in the central Punjab. The normally dry eastern rivers over-swelled. The year 2015 is witnessing another unique weather phenomenon. Unusual widespread winter rains have continued into spring, and now overlapping with the early monsoon period. The harvesting of the wheat crop has been delayed across the country, with an expected decrease in the crop yield.

The 5th Assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared Pakistan highly vulnerable to extreme events, because of about $15 billion losses caused by the last four floods.

Ironically, a link between current weather uncertainties faced by Pakistan and climate change has not been established. The 4th IPCC Report predicted complete melting of Himalayan Glaciers till 2035, but the assessment was withdrawn as the rate of depletion could not be justified. The 5th Report recommends further research on the glacier behavior, without mentioning existing trends. Many recent studies have reported glacier retreat in the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus catchments. A water-balance study by UNESCO calculated about 2 cubic kilometers of excess water from the glacier/snow melt in 2007.

People wait to be evacuated after the 2014 flood in Jhang
People wait to be evacuated after the 2014 flood in Jhang

Pakistan has not developed its transboundary case for the current situation of climate change, over-exploitation of groundwater, upstream aquifer recharge conditions, watershed management and essential downstream environmental needs. The Bagliar and Kishan-Ganga decisions (the latter partially changed the former) against Pakistan prove our technical and legal weaknesses even in the implementation of the Indus Water Treaty.

Pakistan is bound to become a water scarce country within the next five years. If the current water availability (and the existing precipitation patterns) continues, Pakistan will go into “absolute water scarcity” with the doubling of its population. Water demand will continue increasing in the formal and informal sectors. Climate change will increase the demand of water and the uncertainties in supply. The frequency of extreme events is expected to increase. Within the country, the intensity and nature of water issues will vary in a large range.

Pakistan needs to learn water scarcity management, which requires comprehensive, well-evaluated and out-of-the-box solutions in all water use sectors. Our water future lies in how effectively solutions are developed for:

i.    Protection of the existing water resources from the glaciers to the groundwater, which needs serious research and handling of the transboundary and regional issues,

ii.   Enhancing manageable water resources, minimizing unaccounted water uses, storing excess flows and improving infrastructure,

iii.  Increasing the non-consumptive uses of water (like hydropower) and productivity of water in agriculture and other sectors,

iv.  Improving safe water recycling, managing pollution, and properly estimating and managing water wastage and environmental degradation,

v.   Developing provincial agreements and federal-provincial mechanisms to regulate the limited excess water, and

vi.  Addressing a severe lack of research in the water and environment sectors.