Pakistan’s water crisis

In lines with global models of water management, multiple ways can be adopted to tackle the issue

Nabeel Qadeer February 16, 2019
The writer is the chair for UNCTAD — Commonwealth Entrepreneurship Project in Pakistan & CIO of Superior Group

Pakistan is the third most affected country by an acute water shortage, as ranked in an IMF study. Global warming and climate change have affected the monsoon season and annual rainfall received. The annual water available has reduced from 1,500 cubic meters per capita in 2009 to only 1,017 cubic meters. That’s barely above the minimum requirement of a thousand.

The alarming consumption pattern adds to the urgency of the problem. With the fourth highest rate of water consumption and the highest water intensity rate in the world — i.e. amount of water used in cubic meters per unit of GDP — Pakistan needs to reconsider aggregate water usage without further delay.

If the same trend remains, it will reach absolute scarcity levels of water, with a shortage of 31 million acre feet (MAF), and face a drought by as early as 2025. That’s just over five years. An agriculture-based economy will face an irreversible situation of water depletion.

At risk is Pakistan’s 20% of GDP, 75% of total exports revenue and 42% of total labour force, which the sector contributes directly. Add issues of sanitation, public health and industrial water supply, and you get why water shortage is a pressing challenge that requires immediate rectification.

In lines with successful global models of water management, multiple ways can be adopted to tackle the issue. These include conservation, desalination, recycling, innovation and governance. Considering the current situation, Pakistan has space to work in all these areas.

The much politicised debate about construction of new dams is still ongoing, with some progress on Diamer- Bhasha. The two major dams, Tarbela and Mangla, have gathered enormous silt deposits since construction and lost enough storage capacity to be hitting a dead level fast. Of the total 145 MAF that flows annually through Pakistan, up to only 14 MAF can now be stored by the two reservoirs. That’s how dangerously low their current capacity is.

Construction of dams is essential but it is a medium- to long-term policy and requires strategic, inclusive and bold decisions to be made in national interest. However, for immediate results, more has to be done on a short- term policy front.

For example, public awareness has to be created about the matter and domestic level sensitisation be developed. Small, basic steps such as adopting a minimal approach towards use of water can save gallons per day.

That’s where Pakistan’s entrepreneurs have a major role to play. Cost-effective, localised smart solutions need to be made available for use at the domestic level, and by the industrial and agriculture sectors. For example, domestic solutions such as smart monitoring adopted by European countries, including the UK, can keep water usage and leaks in check.

Technology-based filtration at affordable prices can address water-borne diseases and contribute towards public health; startups such as Pak Vitae and Xyla Water are working on scalable models to provide safe drinking water to the poor.

About 95% of Pakistan’s total fresh water is utilised for irrigation in the agriculture sector. Yet, the production scale per acre is lower than that of India and China in the region. Therefore, innovative entrepreneurial solutions such as smart irrigation methods, including micro-irrigation that utilises drip technology will not only increase cultivation but reduce water wastage.

Taking into consideration the intensity of the challenge and urgency of the matter, key integral steps have to be taken without delay. Pakistan’s National Water Policy was approved in 2018 after much deliberation. A bigger question and concern still remains of its execution and implementation especially with respect to provincial coordination.

As the government takes policy measures for an inclusive strategy, the civil society needs to step up as sensitisation agents and the people need to adopt basic lifestyle changes. We need to do this for the next generation.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2019.

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Water Expert | 5 years ago | Reply Some of these startups have unsustainable business models. Low cost filters is actually not a solution to our water woes but in fact our problems lie earlier in the service delivery chain. The sourcing and distribution of water is a larger problem than treatment. If startups are to be promoted, public sector needs to work closely with them to identify actual solutions. Xyla and Pak Vitae haven't made any contribution thus far. I've worked with multiple water startups in Pakistan - the problem is they run after grandiose solutions and big foreign grants, without a grounded business model targeting an actual problem.
Asif Khan | 5 years ago | Reply we must take bold and concrete decisions to solve the dangerous issue other wise we will bear serious consequnces near future. we must construct dams on urgency basis,follow modern technolgy in agriculture sector to utilise water in more efficient way.
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