Water scarcity: conspiracy or mismanagement?

Problem is the absence of efficient conservation, storage and usage, all at the same time

Mohammad Asad Ilyas July 07, 2018
The writer is an academic entrepreneur and a faculty member at Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

For the past several years, we have been focusing on India building dams that might block the flow of water to Pakistan. We are approaching international organisations like the UN and our friends, but have been at the receiving end of lukewarm responses towards the resolution of the problem. This tepid response should give us a hint of our own shortcomings on the matter. Why isn’t the international community helping us? Is it possible that we actually might be at fault here?

Pakistan is concerned about India building dams over rivers but what it should concern more is that more than 30 MAF of water available to it every year is dumped into the Arabian Sea instead of being stored in dams. To put it in context, 30 MAF is equal to 10 trillion gallons which can feed a population of more than 500 million people. Based on these figures, we know for a fact that natural supply of water is not the problem. Problem is the absence of efficient conservation, storage and usage, all at the same time. Therefore, what should concern Pakistan more is the fact that Pakistan's current water storage capacity is just 30 days and declining at an alarming rate. Compare this 30-day capacity with Australia’s storage capacity of 600 days and Egypt’s storage capacity of 1,000 days. Based on global storage capacity, it is only a matter of time before India starts to increase its storage capacity significantly. The institutions of Pakistan should aim to move forward in a manner whereby water management from the Indian side does not stress the country’s consumption.

Pakistan has not built any notable water reservoir in the last four decades. It also has not significantly invested in the upkeep of the existing infrastructure and as a result, the water storage capacity of the existing dams is depleting at a very fast rate. To make matters worse, the country is inefficiently using its existing water and ranks amongst the lowest when it comes to water productivity. Rivers are not the only source of water for Pakistan, it receives a large amount of water from glaciers and rainfall. Fact is that Pakistan does not need to rely solely on Indian side to meet its demand, the predicament arises as the country lacks efficient method to utilise the water made available to it. Currently the politicians, bureaucrats and the establishment are focusing on hampering or slowing the progress of Indian dams. Their focus instead should be on building internal capacity.

Agriculture sector consumes up to 90% of the available fresh water of the country. As with many sectors, the Government of Pakistan is spending less than 0.18% of GDP on agricultural research which is among the lowest in the world. Pakistan has one of the lowest yields in the world but has one of the highest use of hazardous or toxic use of chemical fertilisers.

Per-capita availability of water has declined to 1,000 cubic metres, which places Pakistan in the category of water-scarce countries. Despite the lower per-capita availability, Pakistan continues to waste water at an alarming pace. People at the helm of affairs need to understand the gravity of the situation. We do not only need to build dams but we also need to give fair attention to research and development in agriculture and water technology.

Agriculture techniques have been revolutionised all over the world. With innovative techniques, one can save 90% to 99% water compared to traditional agricultural farming techniques. Israel once also faced similar or even worse situation than what Pakistan is currently facing. Water was used as a weapon against Israel by its neighbouring countries who blocked its water. More than 60% of Israel’s land is desert, the average rainfall in the country has fallen by 50% since 1948 and during this period, its population has increased 10-fold and economy has grown 70-fold. With innovation, modernisation and use of technology, Israel has become water abundant country to the extent that now it has started to supply water to its neighbouring countries. Policy makers of the country realised at that time that water is going to be a challenge for them in the future and therefore they devised a strategy on war-footing basis to tackle this issue. It is the result of focus, coherent effort and centralised management that water scarcity is not a threat for Israel anymore. Some of the founding pillars of Israel’s water management policy are drip irrigation, desalination, deep wells, using treated sewage water for agriculture, curtailing water losses, pricing water to discourage wastage and high yield crops. This is an example for the entire world in general, and Pakistan in particular, how to resolve issues through vision and concrete efforts.

All in all, it can be concluded that water scarcity is rising at a panicking rate for Pakistan. Swift urbanisation and conflict combined with corruption, crime and years of mismanagement have left a massive proportion of the population without access to clean water. Environmentalists and economist have come to conclude that if the contingent plan for water crisis is not deployed, then the next biggest war would be subjected to water itself.

Pakistani politicians, bureaucrats, judiciary and the media need to stop playing politics by sensationalising the issue or worse blame other countries for the problems that we have created ourselves. Our focus should not be in slowing others down but rather hasten ourselves up before it is too late.



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