Equality and equity in the distribution of safe water is a basic human right every state needs to protect. There are an estimated 16 million Pakistanis who don’t have access to clean drinking water. The country was also recently declared ‘water scarce’ to which the government has yet to take any substantive measures for conservation or sustainability. High levels of wastage and irresponsible consumption indicate the general public isn’t too bothered about this either. Meanwhile, corporate companies are succeeding in attempts to dominate and control water for higher profits by turning this basic resource into an expensive commodity. Consequently, a can of soda is often cheaper than a bottle of water.
The Pakistan Council for Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) states that a majority of the country relies on groundwater excavated through hand and motor pumps, with about 60% reliance in the urban and 70% in the rural areas. Increased urbanisation has led to a boost in water demand and supply in the cities, where people who can afford to will buy water for consumption. Here everyone is in contract with some private water company or another for regular cash on delivery-bottled water. Much like the ‘milkman’, here in urban Pakistan, households have their very own ‘waterman’. For these private companies, there is hardly any regulation, tax, or official clearance required for excavation and so intuitively for them the resource is abundant so long as revenue flows is unwavering. It is in the villages and urban slums where affordability is low that people have to walk long distances to access a water source, which is mostly contaminated.
Amidst the water shortage crisis, urban households more commonly in Karachi can even simply dig their own personal well for direct access to the groundwater. Since the government does not monitor or measure groundwater, we have no idea how much of it is actually extracted, consumed or wasted altogether. Groundwater also has a tendency to be murky, with high levels of salt and minerals. But without any monitoring or testing mechanisms, these assessments are virtually impossible to conclude. Our most common source of water exists in absenteeism of strong government legislation or ecological responsibility from individual citizens, naturally paving the way for exploitation from private companies.
Creating greater access does not necessarily mean eliminating cost altogether but with the right policies, it can be made sustainable. Other countries have taken steps to water sustainability where government and people unite in recognising the problem.
In Pakistan, the issue of water is dominated by politics and mismanagement. The government needs to have comprehensive legislation in place for groundwater that is currently being exploited to astronomical lengths, and will soon deplete our resources. There is a dire need for monitoring mechanisms, and conceivable apparatus to ensure every citizen has access to safe water, and learns to use it responsibly in sync with government policy.
In DHA Lahore, a rule was passed amongst residents to avoid washing their cars on Sundays for the sake of water conservation. The policy was commendable, except people were informed through over the gate flyers and nobody was ever appointed to ensure implementation. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif recently launched a ‘Punjab Saaf Paani’ Project that is meant to establish 80 water filtration plants around South Punjab to ensure everyone in the designated area has access to clean drinking water by the end of 2017. One can only await the outcome of this ‘profound scheme’.
As a people we need to push for a system that is not just based on profit maximisation. If we leave water conservation to the “waterman”, then their modes of extraction will not be based on the building of a sustainable water supply for all, but on the desire to constantly increase profit margins.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2017.