Contending with our growing water scarcity

There is an urgent need to prevent the reckless pollution of our existing waterways

Syed Mohammad Ali October 18, 2019
The writer is a development anthropologist. He can be reached at [email protected]

One of the four issues highlighted in the Prime Minister’s recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly was climate change. He pointed out that Pakistan is among the top 10 nations in the world worst affected by climate change, and is paying a high price for a crisis which was not of its own doing (given the country’s comparatively negligible carbon footprint).

Ongoing changes in precipitation levels and the impending glacial melt due to warming temperatures are both serious problems. The Him¬alayan glaciers are melting twice as fast according to a new study that relied on a recently declassified Cold War-era satellite imagery. This study is the latest indication of our long-term water supplies being under threat.

Pakistan heavily depends on glacial rivers for its freshwater supplies. While Pakistan can do little to avert the global warming which is causing the Himalayan glaciers to melt, we can and should seriously rethink our existing water usage policies.

Agriculture currently takes up over 90% of the freshwater in the country, using not only water coming from the glacial-fed rivers but also from the underground aquifers, which continue being pumped up with reckless abandon. Moreover, a large proportion of water used in agriculture is wasted due to our inefficient irrigation systems. Moreover, this precious freshwater is not used to primarily grow food, but instead cash crops like cotton, and water-intensive crops like sugar, which Pakistan is ill-suited to produce, but the production of which is backed by powerful vested interests.

Conversely, the provision of adequate and safe drinking water to average citizens (who cannot afford to purchase bottled water) is becoming a major challenge. The World Bank has categorised Pakistan as one of the most water-stressed countries. Ground realities in other South Asian cities such as Mumbai, New Delhi, or Dhaka are not reassuring either. A water crisis was unleashed upon Chennai some months ago due to scorching temperatures, a late monsoon season and inadequate water management systems. As the South Asian region’s population keeps growing, per capita water availability is predicted to decrease at an even faster pace, which will worsen tensions between the two already hostile neighbours.

Yet freshwater being supplied to major cities is also not managed well, and it continues to experience major losses. In Karachi, much of the freshwater coming to the city is siphoned away by the tanker mafia and sold commercially. Tanker mafias are not the solution for those living in poorer areas. Last year, a judicial report found that 91% of Karachi’s water was unsafe to drink. The situation in Lahore, Rawapindi or Faisalabad is no better when it comes to line losses or even the quality of water being supplied to their residents. There is thus a dire need to fix drinking water supply lines and to prevent their contamination. Yet, there is a lack of infrastructure in place to treat or recycle water.

There is ongoing talk of establishing reverse osmosis-based seawater desalination plants in Karachi to harvest seawater using waste burning or alternative sources to generate the needed energy. Even if Karachi can somehow fund and manage to begin producing good quality freshwater on a mass scale using reverse-osmosis, it would still need infrastructure to distribute this water efficiently and safely. Other big cities in the country without access to the sea, have no other choice but to improve their existing water supply systems, and focus on preservation and conservation of their existing water supplies.

The present government’s emphasis on forestation is laudable but it has not shown a similar urgency to implement a more efficient water use and conservation strategy. There is an urgent need to prevent the reckless pollution of our existing waterways, to enhance the efficiency of our irrigation and drinking water supply systems, and to reconsider the sort of crops we should grow in the future, given that water scarcity is a problem that is now here to stay.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2019.

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