The large-scale initiation of irrigation in the Indus Basin by the British colonialist is one of the most significant — if not the most significant — features of the history of the region. Few have appreciated the enormity it represents in the trajectory of our history, politics and culture. And fewer still understand the affects it has on the groundwater in the region.
The British irrigation system rolled out in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in a massive injection of water into aquifers. Since this injection was more than the drainage capacity of the aquifers, it led to an unprecedented rise in groundwater levels and to large-scale water-logging and salinity issues.
The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 and the irrigation infrastructure built in Pakistan as a result saw the start of large-scale groundwater exploitation. There were 2,700 tube wells in Pakistan in 1950, and this number increased to over 600,000 by 2003. Now, it is estimated that 75 per cent of the increase in water supplies in the last 25 years has been attributed to public and private groundwater exploitation (private farmers are said to have invested about Rs24 billion into groundwater development).
The next phase of Pakistan’s groundwater development is now to rise to the challenge of preserving the groundwater resource base, its recharge and discharge, upon which, in the words of John Briscoe, “so much life and wealth now depends”.
In a paper titled “Pakistan’s Groundwater Reservoir and its Sustainability” by Muhammad Amin, a former Member (Water) Wapda, the writer states that the groundwater potential in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are stated as 42.75 million acre feet (MAF), 18 MAF, 3.11 MAF and 1.21 MAF respectively. However, due to the virtual absence of groundwater management, people are free to install tube wells and extract unlimited amounts of groundwater without regard to the detrimental affect on the aquifer. Where pumping is in excess of the aquifer’s recharge rate, the mining of the aquifer will result in accelerated depletion.
At present, it is estimated that five per cent of the area of Punjab and 15 per cent of Balochistan contains groundwater outside the reach of poor farmers who can only afford shallow pumping wells. And this area may increase to 20 per cent in Punjab and 30 per cent in Balochistan in the next 25 years because of the growth in groundwater withdrawals.
Without doubt then, there is a need for a groundwater regulatory framework in Pakistan that will ensure a sustainable and equitable use of our groundwater resource. But the groundwater equation doesn’t end there and is made infinitely more complicated if one considers the affect of groundwater extraction across the border in India.
In the past few years, data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) shows groundwater in North India has been disappearing. The northern states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana have all the ingredients of groundwater exploitation: staggering population growth, rapid economic development and water-hungry farms which, because of subsidised tube well tariffs, account for about 95 per cent of groundwater use in the region.
A time-lapse video of groundwater resources in north India taken by the GRACE satellite shows the changes in groundwater levels across the border in Pakistan, raising the question of whether or not groundwater use on one side of the border is affecting the groundwater on the other.
At the moment, Indo-Pak water relations are bound by the Indus Waters Treaty. However, the Treaty is a surface water document and does not relate to groundwater use. The big questions then are: if there is a link between groundwater resources across the border, how will these two countries devise a mechanism to regulate the use of the resource; and will they be able to achieve a regulatory mechanism that is both profitable and sustainable? The law of transboundary aquifers adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2009 sets out the basic obligations of countries sharing a transboundary aquifer resource, and may be of some use in developing an arrangement between India and Pakistan.
The IUCN’s Draft Policy Brief “Beyond Indus Water Treaty: Ground Water and Environmental Management — Policy Issues and Options” identifies the following key policy issues: depletion of aquifers in northern India and impact on Pakistan’s aquifers; entry of effluent into western rivers, growing demand of surface water to recharge aquifers in Indus-India; and seepage losses in lakes and reservoirs.
The current framework, leave alone bitter politics, of the Indus Treaty may not allow for such policy issues to be discussed. But groundwater management is definitely a water issue between the two countries. It is up to governments on both sides, supported by civil society, to seize hold of the agenda on this matter and to initiate a dialogue that can secure the water and food security of future generations.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2012.
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Sustainable Ground Water Exploitation requires regulation The Boundaries that separates Nations over the map can only be effective for fixed geological/ecological assets/resources, with Ground Water being a dynamic resource its occurrence & associated recharge beneath the surface is linked over vast complex aquifer system going well beyond the surface boundaries .The ground Water Extraction must be governed in a justifiable manners . Nations Need to Grow up & learn to Co exist .
The trans-boundary groundwater issue http://tribune.com.pk/story/423856/the-trans-boundary-groundwater-issue/
So it is ok for Pakistan to block the NATO supply route, use natural resource advantage to further national interest but not ok for an upper riparian state to use rivers (another natural resource) to its advantage?
Seems like duplicity and double standards to me........
Inventing troubles with neighbors started in Pakistan as a pass time even before it was born. Of late, the present generation Pakistanis are raising it to the level of innovation. One suggestion: in order to stop ground water flowing in the direction of India and benefiting Indians, Pakistan could dig trenches along the border deep enough to prevent trans boundary water flow from happening and station soldiers to guard Pakistan's aqua sovereignty.
Thank you for not printing even a technical comment, Sorry to bother you once more.
India should not give a single drop of water beyond what we are sending down the river to Pakistan today. We have a billion people to feed and their needs trounce the needs of anyone in Pakistan. Besides, the question we should all ask is why should India spare a drop of water for a nation that has done nothing other than breed and train terrorists to attack Indian cities for the last three decades? Did Pakistan ever consider the fact that one day they may have to come knocking at our doors begging for water? Pakistan should find her own water resources (may be Allah will show the way), or die of thirst. They should not expect a drop of water from India.
Dear Sir, I don't know how much you are familiar with discussion about ground water in Pakistan that distribution of water in Pakistan should include amount and availability of ground water in calculation. When it comes to the question of ground water inside Pakistan people like you laugh. There are many areas in Sindh and Balochistan where ground water is salty for miles and miles. Please accept the international law that lower riparians have more right on rivers than upper, like Egypt has right to 80% of Nile water. Include ground water calculations when it comes to the distribution of river waters inside Pakistan between province before you go out and ask India to be fair with us.
Mr Alam raises a very pertinent question. If only one side implements an ground water management system the other side at least near the border will automaticcaly benefit from recharging because border is controlled only on the surface. There is obviously an urgent need to have a collective approach to this very serious problem.
Do you expect India to sign another water treaty with Pakistan?
The two Punjab governments can themselves look at the management of acquifiers and irrigration canals on a limited basis. There are many shallow wells abandoned in Indian Punjab alone. It may be true in Pakistan Punjab as well. Irrigation canals that are not repaired results in seepage of water. In the subcontinent the culture is not to pay any attention to maintenance unless structures have collapsed or near collapse.
Punjab has long been the breadbasket of the subcontinent because of the irrigation canals constructed by the British. It is too risky to ignore the issue.
Blame everything on India...........Infact pakistan has more irrigation projects than the above mentioned Indian states(cosequently we are facing drought this year)..........