It is said that water is life. In Pakistan today, water may be a potential source of death because of its scarcity and contamination.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked Pakistan third among the countries facing severe water shortage. Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) research indicates that there will be a clean water shortage by 2025 across the country if the current scenario persists.
The water problem is multifaceted: with droughts, drying and polluted lakes, industrial sewerage mixing with rivers, wastage of clean water, lowering water tables, deforestation and improper water storage systems.
A recently released report from the PCRWR on the quality of groundwater, which is usually used for drinking in Pakistan, paints a gloomy picture of the water situation.
“Millions of people in 29 major cities of Pakistan are drinking contaminated water which has now put their lives at risk from the deadly arsenic, bacteria and other chemicals.”
This reinforces the findings of Lucy Lytton, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist, Basharat Ahmed Saeed, Water Resources Specialist, and others in a World Bank report, “Groundwater in Pakistan’s Indus Basin: Present and Future Prospects” which states:
“The crucial role of groundwater as a life-sustaining resource is increasingly threatened not only by over- abstraction and waterlogging, but also by contamination.”
“Only 20 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water, the remainder relying on water contaminated by increasing salinity, improper disposal of untreated wastewater, agricultural runoff with pesticide and fertilizer residue, and geogenic (natural) contaminants. Fecal contamination of water resources is endemic due to poor water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services, a key factor in high rates of stunting in Pakistan, which affects 40 percent of children under five.”
Improvement in groundwater management is not only necessary for domestic usages but is directly linked to the economic development of the country. A report “Pakistan: Getting More from Water” by the World Bank says that without necessary reform and better demand management in the water sector, the resulting water scarcity will constrain Pakistan from reaching upper middle-income status by 2047.
Pakistan’s leadership has been working on water issues for the past few years. It announced a National Water Policy 2018 establishing water priorities. In the same year at the provincial level, Punjab Water Policy was created and following that the Punjab Water Act of 2019. The policy outlines a framework to eliminate over-abstraction and contamination of groundwater while the Act sets the criteria for abstraction and wastewater disposal licenses.
Furthermore, to ease the access of potable water, 1,500 Safe Drinking Filtration Plants have been planned all over Punjab by the end of 2023. These plants, to be installed in 36 districts of the province, will provide World Health Organization (WHO) standard drinking water to around 15 million people.
Around 90 percent of water consumption is in field of irrigation, yet irrigation water efficiency is poor in the country
Other provinces are working along same lines at the policy level regarding waterlogging, salinity and over-abstraction. The crucial thing will be the implementation of these policies quickly and then sustain over the long-term.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is implementing the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami Initiative to restore and enhance 1 million hectares of forest across the country. 350 million trees and 814.5 million plants have already been planted. This reforestation and afforestation will help to maintain and improve Pakistan’s water quality.
These are positive initiatives but more still needs to be done to address the full scope of Pakistan’s water crisis. The World Bank recommends focusing on four intervention areas:
(1) Appointing a coordinating agency that is accountable for groundwater management across all sectors in each province
(2) Establishing a modern groundwater database
(3) Managing water resources conjunctively
(4) Improving groundwater quality
In addition to the World Bank recommendations, experts have proposed other actions that could be considered to accelerate resolving the water situation.
Many Pakistanis are unaware of the water shortage dilemma. There are simple yet powerful tips that can be followed to avoid water wastage and for conservation. The print and electronic media could be used to disseminate this information. There are around 102 million 3G/4G subscribers and 104 million broadband subscribers in the country. A persistent social media campaign might make a large-scale difference in public consumption.
Around 90 percent of water consumption is in field of irrigation, yet irrigation water efficiency is poor in the country. Through proper awareness campaigns and hands-on training on scientifically proven irrigation management techniques – such as drip systems and delivery line network – the agricultural sector could both improve crop yielding and conserve precious water at the same time.
Projects like safe drinking water plants could be extended across the country to provide WHO standard water to people both in densely populated urban cities as well as in least privileged areas.
Finally, equalizing surface water usage through dams could be a long-term solution. Research reports say that instead of focusing on a few big dams only, hundreds of small or medium-size dams could be prioritized whose water can be used for domestic, agricultural, industrial and fishing purposes.
As the proverb states, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That step in this instance must be for the water – not to swim in or to sail on it, but as the launching of comprehensive program to make water available and usable for all Pakistanis. This is an essential step and journey for Pakistan to take in order to promote the future health and wealth of all of its people.
Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur and civic leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal
A must read article on shortage of clean water in Pakistan by Frank Islam.