The Pakistan water quality crisis

Published: March 14, 2012

The writer is an environmental lawyer and member of the faculty at LUMS and Punjab University

Water is essential for the survival of all living things. Without water, humans would die in a few days, crops would not grow and food would run short. In Pakistan, due to the increase in population, per-capital water resources estimated at the time of Partition at 5000m3/year are expected to fall below 1000m3/year in the near future. Pakistan will shortly become a water- stressed country. It is crucial, therefore, to consider the state of water quality.

Access to clean water is as important as access to water itself. The health and economic effects of polluted water are well-documented. It leads to illness, ailment and even death. Mortality and morbidity impose costs on individuals and families which, above the direct costs of treatment and medicine, may include loss of earning and impaired productivity. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has declared, not only that the fundamental right to life includes a clean and healthy environment, but that access to unpolluted water is the right of every person wherever he lives.

The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, which launched its National Water Quality Monitoring Program in 2001, documents the water quality situation throughout Pakistan and submitted its fifth and final Report in 2007. The report examines the water quality of 357 samples taken from 23 major cities, eight rivers, six dams, four lakes, two canals and one reservoir to analyse contaminants against an array of quality standards.

Every major city reported unsafe drinking water. None of the water sources tested in Bahawalpur, Kasur, Multan, Lahore, Sheikhupura and Ziarat was safe for drinking purposes. All of the 22 surface water bodies evaluated in the report were found to be contaminated with colioforms and E. Coli; 73 per cent had a high level of turbidity, three had high concentrations of irons and 27 per cent showed excessive concentrations of iron and fluoride.

Approximately, 60 per cent of Pakistanis get their drinking water from hand or motor pumps (in rural areas, this figure is over 70 per cent). It is estimated that as many as 40 million Pakistanis depend on the supply of irrigation water for their domestic use.

According to a United Nations Children’s Fund study, 20-40 per cent of the hospital beds in Pakistan are occupied by patients suffering from water-related diseases such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery and hepatitis and that water-related diseases account for one-third of all deaths. According to the World Bank’s 2006 Environment Assessment, Pakistan employs Daily Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) –– the years of healthy life lost to illness and premature mortality –– as the standard measure to calculate the economic cost of environmental degradation. It finds that poor water quality in Pakistan accounts for more than 2.5 million DALYs. Total health costs are estimated at Rs114 billion or approximately 1.81 per cent of the GDP.

Most surface water pollution is associated with untreated discharge of waste water from urban areas. Effectively, none of the estimated 2,000 million gallons of sewage discharged into surface water bodies in Pakistan daily, is treated. Industrial effluent, under law, is to be regulated by environment protection agencies through self-monitoring and reporting programmes under the Pakistan Environment Protection Act but, proverbially, enforcement is lax (and made more challenging after the 18th Amendment).

The water quality situation in Pakistan is an environmental catastrophe. Untreated waste water, industrial effluent and agricultural run-off is poisoning our water and people. However, the interest in taking this issue up, enforcing the law and making a difference does not appear to exist. Common political discourse seldom rises above accusation and short-term speculation. Simultaneously, we continue to spend our money on a huge army, an un-understandable war against terror, a gaping circular debt, corrupt and inefficient public sector enterprises and roads. By God, we can throw an overhead bypass up in three months.

Winston Churchill, when asked to cut funding for the arts during World War II to aid the war effort, denied the request thus: “What else are we fighting for?” When I compare Pakistan’s water quality crisis to the lack of attention it’s getting and where priorities are otherwise set, I ask myself the same question.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • Deb
    Mar 15, 2012 - 1:59AM

    It’s alarming.Thanks for highlighting an issue that affects million of lives.

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  • Mar 15, 2012 - 9:17AM

    “None of the water sources tested in Bahawalpur, Kasur, Multan, Lahore, Sheikhupura and Ziarat was safe for drinking purposes.”
    SO ITS MEAN WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE ARE DRINKING AND WHAT ITS IN THERE?

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  • Sal
    Mar 15, 2012 - 11:26AM

    Mr. Ahmed Rafay Alam, this is a brilliant piece of environmental writing. I am a huge fan of your work. Please continue to lead the way in bringing attention to these fundamental issues facing Pakistan which no one seems to be really concerned about!

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  • Hassan
    Mar 15, 2012 - 2:01PM

    One underlying problem we’re facing is that Pakistani’s love children, and love having a lot of children. The pressure which this terrible population monster that keeps growing places on all infrastructure is something we still have to learn to deal with. However, no amount of learning can remove the fundamental quality-quantity tradeoff with regards to provision of necessities, which would turn its nasty head up more and more often as we have more and more consumers. The effect of population growth is in fact exponential, as each consumer is himself/herself a producer of pollutants as well. Times of widespread scarcity with regards to ‘abundant’ natural resources are quite within sight now.
    Over the short and long term we will have to adopt a two-pronged approach, striking a quality-quantity balance at both levels. But for sure, water needs to be given a much higher priority. In turn it leads to a healthier population. We also need to build more storage dams asap, as the most affordable way of dealing with pollution is by diluting it.

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  • Mansoor Nawaz
    Mar 15, 2012 - 4:45PM

    Mr. Alam its brilliantly put!
    Plus I have a request: although i think its not exactly your area of interest/research but i request you to write on Pakistan’s population and its impact on our growth. I dont know if you have already written some stuff on in or not. If you have somebody please share the link. Thank you!

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  • nazar
    Mar 15, 2012 - 5:59PM

    Bro nice editorial we are not a nation plz pray to Allah we became nation

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