Pakistan’s water crisis

Published: August 15, 2011
The writer is distinguished professor of economics at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore

The writer is distinguished professor of economics at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore

A water crisis is emerging which could have major implications for Pakistan’s economy and society. Effective management of this crisis first requires urgent mitigation and adaptation measures with close cooperation amongst Pakistan’s provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh on the one hand and then between Pakistan and India on the other. If the necessary collaboration for cooperative management of the Indus basin water resources is not undertaken expeditiously, the resultant economic crisis could lead to a war with India.

The problem of water scarcity in the Indus basin is predicated partly on the inherent limitations of water supply in the Indus River System and partly on the growing water demand associated with inefficient water use in the process of economic and population growth. Unsustainable development practices have exacerbated the problem with intrusion of salinity into the ground water, contamination of aquifers with harmful chemicals such as fluoride and arsenic and pollution of surface water due to lack of an institutional framework for environmentally safe disposal of urban and industrial waste. An important dimension of the water issue in the years ahead is the phenomenon of climate change, which could take the crisis to a critical level.

Water scarcity can be measured by the availability of water compared with the generally accepted minimum per capita requirement of 1,700 cubic metres per person per year. In their book, Freshwater Under Threat: South Asia, Mukand S Babel and Shahriar M Wahid have estimated that the per capita availability of water in the Indus basin is 1,329 cubic metres per capita per year. This is significantly below the threshold requirement. Another interesting indicator of the water problem is the measure of development pressure on water resources, which is the percentage of available water supply relative to the total water resources. This ratio is as high as 89 per cent for the Indus basin compared to only 15 per cent for the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin. This indicates the relatively greater development pressure on the Indus basin.

Worse, the utilisation of water for production is also highly inefficient by global standards. Water use efficiency is measured in terms of the GDP per unit of water used. In the case of the five top food producers in the world (Brazil, China, France, Mexico and the US) the water use efficiency is $23.8 per cubic metre. The figure is as low as $3.34 for the Indus basin.

The problem of water scarcity is expected to become more acute in the future due to the adverse impact of climate change. Dr Leena Srivastava, in a recent research paper, provides evidence to show that some of the Himalayan glaciers are melting more rapidly than the global average and this could increase the frequency of floods in the short run and increase water shortages in the long term by reducing river flows in South Asia. Furthermore, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, given the sensitivity of existing seeds to heat, global warming could result in a 30 per cent reduction in the yield per acre of food crops in South Asia.

Science and empirical evidence make clear that existing water scarcity, when combined with the impact of climate change, could place critical stress on the economy and society of Pakistan in particular and South Asia in general: major food shortages, increased frequency of natural disasters, large scale dislocations of population and destabilising contention between upper and lower riparian regions.

Effective management of this crisis in Pakistan requires close cooperation with India in joint watershed management, increasing the efficiency of irrigation and water use, joint development of technologies, sustainable agriculture practices and institutional arrangements to manage food shortages as well as natural disasters. When faced with a common threat, ideology must be replaced by rationality in the conduct of governance. If we fail to do so, natural disasters could trigger the man-made catastrophe of war.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2011.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (27)

  • Ex Pakistani
    Aug 15, 2011 - 9:23PM

    It is because US, Israel and India has conspired and blocked our resources and scuttle our industrial growth. They wont succeed and you will see we will be industrially no. 1 in a few years


  • ikmundapunjabi
    Aug 15, 2011 - 9:41PM

    @Ex Pakistani: are you for real? i mean really? when will u actually get your head out of the sand and live in a place called “reality”.


  • Ex Pakistani
    Aug 15, 2011 - 10:00PM

    Did I say something wrong? I said some crap will start to coming so why dont I notch it up by a bit….


  • Meekal Ahmed
    Aug 15, 2011 - 10:01PM

    Dr Sahib,

    No food, no bijli, no gas, no oil, no roads, no education, no health services, no honesty, no accountability….and now no water?!

    I am sure your analysis is correct. Please make sure someone is listening!


  • AnIndian
    Aug 15, 2011 - 10:43PM

    Formula: Water Per Capita = Water Available/Population

    The “water per capita” is not decreasing because of the decrease in the numerator; but because of an explosive increase in denominator.

    Elementary Mathematics!

    So, the problem is not water crisis but overpopulation…


  • faraz
    Aug 15, 2011 - 10:53PM

    So we don’t have the world’s greatest canal system as claimed by Pakistan studies, Punjab textbook board book; the book also claims that we the fortress of Islam.


  • Vicram Singh
    Aug 15, 2011 - 10:58PM

    ” …. Effective management of this crisis in Pakistan requires close cooperation with India in joint watershed management, …. If we fail to do so, natural disasters could trigger the man-made catastrophe of war. …. “

    Why are you threatening India with the possibility of a war because of water mis-management inside Pakistan ? It is like holding Indian Railways responsible for trains running late in Pakistan.


  • Ex Pakistani
    Aug 15, 2011 - 11:05PM

    @Meekal Ahmed:
    But you have to agree we are the greatest and world is jealous of us due to our success


  • Aug 15, 2011 - 11:58PM

    Absolutely correct assessment. Water scarcity is the big threat facing us. Am glad Dr. Akmal Hussain has pointed it out so very well. Rulers and future ruler, please listen,


  • Max
    Aug 16, 2011 - 12:54AM

    Water scarcity is, what some believe, that may lead to war/s border skirmishes between the countries. India and Pakistan were listed as second war-prone areas due to water scarcity and possibility of international strife.
    Dr. Hussain is correct to pint out the root-causes: the economic and population growth. I will add one more and I am sure Dr. Hussain will agree it is the water waste in our agricultural system.


  • Sajida
    Aug 16, 2011 - 1:09AM

    @Vicram Singh close cooperation to you means war?! Pakistan has already experienced once when India behaved improperly regarding water. Do you know your history well enough to know that?! Meanwhile there is already dispute over 3 rivers that were agreed for exclusive use of Pakistan;but, India is now acting otherwise. But hey India has to deal with China over water issues also.Everyone needs to behave like an adult.
    Anyway one thing Both are not doing is using water efficiently. Indian experts were predicting famines in India at a conference on water use held in Stockholm in 2004. Why was that? Because of all that tubewell use which is draining aquifers!
    Both countries have to start using water with respect and neither are. Drip agriculture anyone on national scale!
    Or you will both be recycling your sewage water, as they have started to do in Texas;and have already done so in other regions like Singapore.
    Drought-stricken Texas town Big Springs to recycle sewage water to drink


  • Mastishhk
    Aug 16, 2011 - 1:30AM

    @ Ex Pakistani….I just hope u r being sarcastic and dnt mean it :)


  • Mirza
    Aug 16, 2011 - 2:33AM

    @Meekal Ahmed:
    I have taken the liberty to copy your lines, No food, no bijli, no gas, no oil, no roads, no education, no health services, no honesty, no accountability….and now no water?!
    We may not have clean, safe or plentiful water for drinking but we do have hundreds of nuclear warheads! We can ride them to take care of all our problems.
    @Ex Pakistani: Lolz. Your comment to Meekal Ahmed made me laugh hard! Nice way to put it!
    Thanks and regards,


  • Reddy
    Aug 16, 2011 - 6:57AM

    @Ex Pakistani:
    I wish you all the best.
    But surely, there is a limit to fantasizing also my friend.


  • Vicram Singh
    Aug 16, 2011 - 7:09AM

    @Sajida: “@Vicram Singh close cooperation to you means war?”

    Never said that – the author implied that if Pakistan is unable to manage its water resources, there could be war with India.

    But yes, you are correct about drip irrigation.


  • Reddy
    Aug 16, 2011 - 7:10AM

    The author has indeed made a detailed study of the situations with many cross references to scientists.
    He has come up with some fine numbers too.
    All that is fine.
    I, As a commoner would have loved to have read ways and means of water harvestation, water conservation,cloud seeding and other techniques which will help us live with the danger of water scarcity.
    This dramatization of the situation with no formulas coming through is quite irritating.
    Many cities in India have taken up rain water harvesting seriously.
    No new building plans are approved with our a water harvesting system in place and the government is proving subsidies.
    ( Interestingly the water table has risen as a result of this measure. Some of the few initiatives of the Government that have actually worked.)
    The government is also providing subsidies for drip irrigation systems and farmers all over are responding positively.
    Unless people like the author can come up with custom plans and write positive articles so that common Pakistanis can read , understand and put pressure on the government to protect their future, what is the use of his pen ???
    Water conservation is now slowly becoming a fashion in India and this is thanks to the spreading of knowledge.


  • BruteForce
    Aug 16, 2011 - 8:38AM


    “Pakistan has already experienced once when India behaved improperly regarding water. “

    India has never violated the Indus Water Treaty(IWT). Pakistan had even lodged a complaint against India to the World Bank which is the arbiter. WB decided in favour of India.

    The problem lies here. India has a fixed share of the water, which is pretty sufficient for usage. But, it can, according to the treaty, use the water for the generation of electricity, but cannot use it for any other purposes. So, in the future when the glaciers melt Pakistan will be faced with floods. When they melt completely, the Indian share of water will remain constant(thanks to the treaty) but the Pakistani share will decline rapidly.

    Now, the Urdu media will drum up that India is stopping the water, but the harsh reality is it is done by Global Warming, which is inturn caused by developed nations like the US.

    So, there you go, you have another reason to hate the US.

    P.S. The Pakistanis who have negotiated the treaty have done a great deal of harm to Pakistan and have benefitted India. I cannot thank them enough to have helped India.


  • BruteForce
    Aug 16, 2011 - 8:45AM

    India has all the cards here too. It has never violated the IWT. Why? Because the terms of the IWT favour India.

    In the short term due to rapid melting of the glaciers Pakistan will be faced with floods, but Indian share of water will be fixed. When those glaciers melt and cannot feed the river system as a result, the Indian share of water will again remain constant, while the Pakistani share will decrease monumentally.

    But, India is allowed to use the entire river system for generation of electricity. So, Global Warming or no Global Warming, India will get its share of water along with Electricity. Pakistan will either get floods or droughts.

    So, it is imperative for Pakistan to stop Terror against India and work with it, rather than against it. Only if India voluntarily gives extra water to Pakistan can this riddle be solved. That can never happen unless Pakistan stops using Terror as an instrument of state policy.


  • vasan
    Aug 16, 2011 - 10:18AM

    Reddy: You forgot to mention about checkdams and tree clubs. Few years ago all buildings in Tamilnadu old or new had to provide for rain water harvesting. The municipal corporations did door to door checking on that. If the owners didnt do it, the Corporation did it and billed the owners. I had to do it in my office and home buildings.


  • SKChadha
    Aug 16, 2011 - 11:37AM

    @ Dr. Akmal Hussain:

    “Effective management of this crisis in Pakistan requires close cooperation with India ….. When faced with a common threat, ideology must be replaced by rationality in the conduct of governance. If we fail to do so, natural disasters could trigger the man-made catastrophe of war.”

    Why veiled treat of WAR to India for mismanagement of water resources in Pakistan .. ?? What stops Pakistan to build dams, pondage downstream for its need? If you do not store water for rainy day how India can be blamed for that?

    The problem is that during mansoon my Pak brothers wants India to stop spillage and in draught they desire India to release water beyond IWT. There is neither understanding of the issue nor real interest in solutions except making rhetoric. Even today over 5 maf to 11 maf of Ravi, Beas and Satluj water flows into Pakistan as per GoP’s own documents. India can build barbed wires but can’t build dams all along the border. Between 8maf to 92 maf of only Indus water flows every year in sea. The total flow to sea is many times more then what Pakistan receives from India. Though, water management position of India is not praiseworthy, but figures in Pakistan would be horrifying for our brothers across the border. The ‘Pondage’ or live storage at Baglihar is not even 0.1% of Total flow in Chinab and rhetoric in writings to go upto WAR? I request young educated minds of both nations, to analyze IWT, its dispute resolution mechanism and past decisions of arbitrators to understand the facts.


  • jam
    Aug 16, 2011 - 12:13PM

    If you look at the whole issue from spiritual angle, you will realize that Pakistan is now getting closer to their arab roots. It may have taken 1000 years to convert the sindhu area population to islam, but in less than 64 years Pakistanis are successful in transforming the most fertile sindhu/hindu region to Arabian deserts.

    The author and Pakistanis should praise the allah for bringing them near to the deserts of Arabia.


  • bashir
    Aug 16, 2011 - 12:51PM

    We should keep this topic of water scarcity for some other year as we are busy pulling our legs, making new ‘subas’. querreling on television, fighting like dogs. We have no time for water issue


  • antony
    Aug 16, 2011 - 4:59PM

    @Jam , your spiritual humour is too good .keep it up . @Author rather than being an alarmist , please outline some must do’s action points for pakistan on water needs .Simply saying war is imminent with Indians if we dont improve our abilities to save water ,plan and negotiate better treaties is not helping pakistan ..Pakistan already has a gun in hand for war for the past 64 years .please educate pakistan to hold science book in hand to rescue itself from misery..


  • Zahid Aktar
    Aug 16, 2011 - 6:51PM

    Thank you Professor. I saw this the last time I was in Pakistan.


  • chu
    Aug 16, 2011 - 8:41PM

    In India, in addition to rain water harvesting, drip irrigation etc., the problem is also partially solved by Bollywood, for eg. Devanand brought rain in ‘Guide’ by fast unto death, Amir khan brought rain in ‘Lagaan’ by singing song. Also rain comes during romantic songs and dancing around trees in so many movies. Authour should try ‘Lollywood’ – may be it can be of some help? One query though – will rain come for burqa clad heroines?


  • Mastishhk
    Aug 16, 2011 - 9:17PM

    @ Chu..u r impossible dude :))


  • Sep 2, 2011 - 11:21AM

    @Vicram Singh:

    I am grateful to Mr. Vicram Singh for an opportunity to clarify.

    My article presents evidence on the existing water scarcity in the Indus Basin which is accentuated by inefficient utilization of water supplies. Furthermore, I have argued that climate change will in future, further reduce river flows and is likely to have major adverse consequences for the economies and societies of the two countries. On this basis, the article makes a case for Pakistan-India cooperation to take the necessary mitigation and adaptation measures to address a shared problem. When a resource as crucial to life as water, is shared by two countries, severe scarcity, can create tensions and when as in the India-Pakistan case, there is a tendency for mutual recrimination, these tensions can lead to the irrationality of war. I have urged that the problem be handled in a rational way through cooperation. To misconstrue this as a threat to war as Mr. Singh appears to have done is itself irrational. We need to move out of the confines of adversarial nationalist narratives and together try to address a shared problem on the basis of a shared humanity.

    Yours sincerely,

    Dr. Akmal Hussain
    11 Saint John’s Park,
    Lahore Cantonment,
    Lahore, Pakistan


More in Opinion