Pakistan's water scarcity threatens peace in the region. If not tackled, the issue will fan discord with India and exacerbate inter-provincial disharmony within Pakistan.
Pakistan's water shortage drips towards disaster
While economic stagnation, terrorism and religious intolerance remain in the spotlight, the South Asia scholar Anatol Lieven warns that water shortages "present the greatest future threat to the viability of Pakistan as a state and a society." Regrettably, the discourse on the subject remains both delusional and misdirected.
In 66 years since independence, Pakistan's per capita water availability has declined from 5,000 cubic metres to less than 1,500 cubic metres, according to a 2009 report. Currently Pakistan provides about 1,000 cubic metres of water per capita - about the same level as Ethiopia. At this rate of depletion, by 2025, Pakistan's water shortfall could be five times the amount it can presently store in its reservoirs.
"The country is heading towards an acute water crisis," confirms Dr Qamar-uz-Zaman, who served as head of Pakistan's metrological department for several years.
Given Pakistan's scarcity of water and proclivity to blame others, a 2009 CIA report concluded that "the likelihood of conflict between India and Pakistan over shared river resources is expected to increase".
"No specific evidence [is] brought forth so far that India is actually obstructing the flow or is diverting the waters," concedes Ahmer Bilal Soofi, the former caretaker law minister. And yet, Pakistani media and politicians blame India for controlling the flow of water to the detriment of Pakistan. Such a course merely blinds the policymakers and public to the impending crisis that is of Pakistan's own making and to which there is a no easy solution.
Paradoxically, India and Pakistan resolved the contentious water issue in 1961 through the Indus Water Treaty in only 14 years. Pakistan's own four provinces took 44 years after independence to sign the Water Apportionment Accord in 1991. Notwithstanding the Accord, water remains a highly contentious issue effectively stalling building of any new reservoirs in the past 40 years.
Historically with plenty of water, shaping the wastage culture, its management and distribution have always been an important but a neglected process in much of Pakistan.
There are several reasons for this reduced water availability in Pakistan, some of which are natural.
Pakistan's population is ballooning. Climate change is making glacial water supply uncertain. Reduced snow-melts sometimes lead to less water in the system. Rainwater is wasted for lack of storage reservoirs. Illegal logging and removal of forest cover have denuded Pakistan's rangelands, causing annual flash floods that result in heavy collateral damage.
In addition to the waste, Pakistan is also contaminating its water. Untreated industrial and domestic effluent is being discharged into rivers while unregulated pesticides from farms are finding its way into streams and groundwater.
Pakistan's existing water storage infrastructure is ageing and is unable to cope with the rising demand. Sedimentation in the three main dams constructed during the 1960s and 1970s has reduced their holding capacity by a third, leaving Pakistan with a dangerously low water storage capacity of 30 days. Plans for building new dams have fallen prey to narrow provincial self-interest.
Pakistan is estimated to lose 13 million cusecs of water every year into the sea. Some experts, especially from Sindh province, argue that much of this flow is necessary to prevent seawater intrusion into the land. This seawater encroachment damages land otherwise suitable for agriculture up to 100 kilometres inland during periods of reduced river flow.
While water availability has declined, the way Pakistanis use water has not. People waste water by leaving taps running. The household usage is now almost all on a fixed charge basis - meaning excessive wastage. Industrial pollutants and household waste released into water channels contaminates water. The regulatory framework to prevent water wastage is non-existent.
Against the average of 75 per cent water usage for agriculture in the developing world Pakistan uses nearly 90 per cent. With barely 10 per cent left for drinking, household usage, sanitation and industrial purposes, no wonder that a third of the population does not have access to safe drinking water.
From within its usage for agriculture two-thirds of water is wasted due to archaic agricultural practices says Dr Qamar-uz-Zaman. Since many influential landowners are also powerful politicians benefiting from the status quo, they resist all attempts to change - only to maintain some of the lowest productivity rates in the world per unit of water and per unit of land.
Recovering only 24 per cent of its annual overhaul and maintenance (O&M) cost, Pakistan's canal water irrigation system is financially unsustainable. The rest of the money for O&M comes in subsidies, disclosed a planning commission report. This low cost to the user breeds wastage and thus a national loss.
Pakistan's water scarcity threatens peace in the region. Instead of passing blame Pakistan needs to look within to prevent waste and devise better management methods to reverse this looming crisis. The situation, if not tackled, will fan discord with India and exacerbate inter-provincial disharmony in Pakistan.
Sajjad Ashraf, an adjunct professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and an associate fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies, Singapore is a former member of Pakistan foreign service