FOR many, climate change conjures up images of forsaken polar bears floating on icebergs made from melting ice caps, or hurricanes in the Caribbean turning island paradises into island hells. But the ones who are most affected worldwide are those with the least resources in fragile environments — including people in places like Pakistan.
For people in Pakistan, perhaps the most immediate and serious impact is on water availability. According to a report by the World Resources Institute, Pakistan is on track to become the most water-stressed country in the region, and 23rd in the world, by the year 2040. No person in Pakistan, whether from the north with its more than 5,000 glaciers, or from the south with its ‘hyper deserts’, will be immune to this.
Pakistan’s economy is the most water-intensive worldwide, according to an IMF report. According to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, Pakistan may run dry by 2025 if the present conditions continue. They claim that the country touched the ‘water stress line’ in 1990, and crossed the ‘water scarcity line’ in 2005, more than a decade ago, and that in relation to the scale of the problem relatively little has been done to improve the use or supply of water.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation measures the pressure on national water resources by calculating water withdrawal as a percentage of total renewable water resources (TRWR). Stresses are considered high if the TRWR value is above 25 percent. Pakistan’s water pressure amounts to a staggering 74pc. This level of pressure is high, even when compared with neighbouring countries, such as Iran at 67pc, India at 40pc, Afghanistan at 31pc, and China at 19.5pc.
Pakistan must diversify its water resources.
With new challenges in trans-boundary water talks, understandably much focus is directed towards Pakistan’s interstate water issues with India and Afghanistan. But international experience shows that water scarcity can exacerbate internal tensions. According to the UN Peace Institute, evidence from Pakistan shows that water scarcity, droughts, floods and domestic mismanagement can prompt tensions locally and this can escalate intrastate water disputes.
As with other diverse and larger countries, Pakistan has defused these tensions — but with current signs pointing towards greater water scarcity these tensions are likely to increase, making improved water management an economic, environmental and political imperative.
Crafting sustainable solutions will require an integrated approach to supply and demand management. In the long-term planning, coming up with strategic conservation strategies is key. Both surface and groundwater resources are being used at capacity, and current methods of extraction and uses are not only unsustainable, they are also damaging to the economy and human security today and in the future.
With the population growing even faster than projected, and the intensity of water use remaining high, if no remedial actions are taken now the water needs of the estimated 208 million Pakistanis will continue to escalate dramatically. While more reservoirs and dams may be a part of the answer, they are just one part. So, apart from building more dams and reservoirs, it is essential that Pakistan diversifies its water resources to ensure water availability. We have examples from many countries that can be adapted to Pakistan.
For instance, Singapore follows The Four Taps Strategy to tackle water shortages, and Japan has invested heavily in water-saving technologies. Similarly, we have plenty of rainwater year-round that can be recycled and stored as is being done in the Maldives.
In all those countries, a price is put on water use, so it’s important to note that for a country like Pakistan water is almost a free commodity. Unlike electricity, there are no water meters in houses where people pay according to usage. Thus, there is enormous, unmeasured water wastage. To sensitise the public on water wastage it is critical that water usage is metered. Public outreach campaigns have worked elsewhere for helping put a value on water; and decreasing the intensity of water used.
Current irrigation practices are largely inefficient, and water productivity is lowest in the Indus basin’s irrigated agriculture. According to UNDP, the development of laser levelling technology and furrow-bed irrigation has resulted in saving 30pc of water and has led to an increase in productivity by 25pc in Punjab’s Okara district. Such a model should be replicated in other areas, as well as other methods, such as expanded drip irrigation farming systems.
Delaying efforts to address Pakistan’s water scarcities will intensify tensions between different stakeholders. If more Pakistanis are not to be left behind and the SDGs are to be met rapidly, reducing ‘water stress’ is crucial. Water management needs to become a top priority for Pakistan.
Neil Buhne, UN Resident Coordinator, Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Pakistan