Pakistan’s water worries

There are a number of ways in which climate change affects water supply. All of them are relevant for Pakistan

Shahid Javed Burki May 08, 2016
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been quoted in the press saying that by 2018, Pakistan would have enough electricity generating capacity to dispense with power outages. He is probably right. This would be the consequence of the attention his government has given to increase the supply of electric power. All sources of producing electricity are being tapped. There are schemes under implementation to make use of the country’s significant hydropower potential. Coal-based power plants are under construction mostly with Chinese help. Pakistan has the potential to use wind and the sun to produce electricity.

The government has lived up to the promise it made when it assumed power in June 2013 that it would address the three crises the country faced at that time. They were severe energy shortage, an underperforming economy, and the rise of religious extremism. They were dubbed the “3-Es.” Three years into its current term, the administration has made progress on all three fronts. It should have, but it did not, identified another crisis: water shortage. Now that the government seems headed towards solving the energy crisis, it needs to turn its attention to the availability of water.

Pakistan shares this crisis with a number of other countries. For several of them, including Pakistan, the changing climate is affecting water availability. A new report from the World Bank, High and Dry: Climate Change, Water, and Economy, suggests that by 2050, “an inadequate supply of water could knock down economic growth in some parts of the world by as much as six per cent of gross domestic product, sending them into sustained negative growth.” China, India, Pakistan, the Middle East and much of Africa will be seriously affected. The African nations may enter the negative growth territory. “When we look at any of the major impacts of climate change, they one or way or another come through water,” Richard Domania, the lead author of the report, told the press while releasing the document.

There are a number of ways in which climate change affects water supply. All of them are relevant for Pakistan. It has been established that the Earth is warming more rapidly than scientists thought would occur because of the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Warmer temperatures can cause more evaporation from land which comes back to the ground in the form of rain. Global warming is also altering the flow of air which may result in severe droughts.

The World Bank report says that 1.6 billion people already live in nations that are subject to water scarcity. This group of countries includes Pakistan. Depending on the precise definition of the concept, other research has put that number even higher, up to four billion people who could be affected by water scarcity during at least some part of the year. Using its own definition, the World Bank fears that the number of people living with potential water threats will double over the next two decades. South Asia, Africa and the Middle East will contribute to this likely increase in the number of people likely to be hurt. “Growing populations, rising incomes, and expanding cities will converge upon a world where the demand for water rises exponentially, while supply becomes more erratic and uncertain,” writes the World Bank. The Bank believes that in the next 30 years, “the global food system will require between 40 to 50 per cent more water, municipal and industrial demand will increase by 50 to 70 per cent, the energy sector will see water demand increase by 85 per cent, and the environment, already the residual claimant,” may need more. Given these projections, what should be the policy response in Pakistan?

These challenges are not insurmountable, however, and smart policies that induce water use efficiency, align incentives across regional and trading partners, and invest in adaptive technologies can go a long way toward reducing or eliminating these negative effects. Since much of the water Pakistan uses comes down in the Indus River system, the country has to work with India, the upper riparian, to ensure steady flow. This is one area where the two countries were able to work together and agree on a water-sharing agreement. The 1960 Indus Water Treaty signed by President Ayub Khan and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has survived two wars between the two nations.

There are both differences and similarities in the power and water crises. Both are hurting the economy, both should be tackled by strategies that focus on the long term, and both are hurting the poor more than the well-to-do. Once the government does turn its attention to managing the water crisis, it will have to adopt an approach different from the one used for tackling the power shortage. The focus in that case was on the supply side. But there is a major difference between the two sectors. Potentially, the supply of power is unlimited. That is not the case with water. There has to be greater focus on managing more efficiently the available supply. It is well known in Pakistan that much of the available water is wasted. Most of the water is used in agriculture where those who use it pay very little. The cropping pattern favours water-intensive crops. For instance, sugar cane cultivation uses a great amount of water but notwithstanding that, public policy favours its production.               

Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2016.

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Andy Iyer | 5 years ago | Reply @Hammad- Have you read UNSC Resolution 47 (9148) where the complainant was India? Pls. carefully read the conditions set forth in the Resolution before spouting uninformed dribble.
lmao | 5 years ago | Reply @Hammad - have you read the UN resolution on Kashmir? Its on the UN website. Please read when you can spare some time.
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