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The development paradigm has changed globally over the past few decades. The time is gone when countries could achieve rapid economic growth with little or no regard for adverse effects on the environment. In fact, all nations of the world have committed to achieving the targets set forth by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The SDGs place a heavy focus on ‘protecting the Earth’ by encouraging sustainable production and consumption practices, as well as, innovative solutions to reduce the impact of rapid natural resource depletion.
For Pakistan, the most valuable natural resource is water. Water shortage is a real problem, which is exacerbated by the rapidly increasing population of the country. Pakistan ranks ninth in the world in terms of lowest access to clean water, where approximately 21 million out of 207 million people do not have access to clean water. In fact, the situation has deteriorated over time as water availability has decreased five-fold since independence to below 1,000 cubic metres per person per year at present.
Pakistan has a water storage capacity of roughly 10 per cent of the country’s available water resources. In other words, Pakistan has a capacity of storing water for a maximum of 36 days, which is far below the global average of 140 days.
This alarming situation is partly caused by changing weather conditions brought about by climate change, but mostly by chronic water mismanagement. Around 95 per cent of water in Pakistan is diverted towards agriculture through its extensive canal system. However, half of this water is wasted. According to a report by the Indus River System Authority (2017), Pakistan dumps water worth USD$21 billion into the sea annually due to a weak water conservation system.
In addition to the wastage of water, agricultural yields are also dismal. For example, Pakistan produces 3.1 tons per hectare of wheat, which is 38 per cent of France’s yield of wheat. Similarly, Pakistan’s yield of rice is 2.7 tons per hectare, which is 29 per cent of that of the United States. As agriculture is the mainstay of Pakistan in terms of income and employment, improved water and land utilization can greatly enhance profitability and productivity in this sector while at the same time increasing sustainability.
Considering the importance of water explained above, wastewater management is an area that needs to be closely looked at. In Pakistan, domestic waste containing effluent and human waste is normally discharged directly from the sewerage system without treatment into a natural drain, nearest water body or field. Estimates indicate that only eight per cent of wastewater is treated, and that too at a basic level. Moreover, only about a dozen cities have treatment facilities. Similarly, industrial waste is not treated and discharged directly into the nearest water body. It is estimated that around 70 per cent of waste from Karachi, which accommodates most of the country’s industry, is discharged into the Arabian Sea without any treatment.
Discharge of human and industrial wastewater has many adverse environmental impacts. Firstly, it contaminates sources of freshwater and jeopardizes already scarce drinking water resources. Secondly, it has a major impact on the health of people as contaminated water is conducive to many diseases. Another major effect is on natural ecosystems. Wastewater can greatly affect marine life as well as animal life on land. Wastewater, especially toxic waste from industries, is also detrimental for agricultural soil. Moreover, agricultural produce from land affected by such water can be detrimental to the health of its consumers.
The need of the hour is to enforce existing laws and regulations on proper wastewater treatment and to incentivize industries to acquire environmentally friendly technology. Pakistan has environmental tribunals that can be very effective in enforcing environmental laws. However, due to a lack of political will these courts remain inactive.
Moreover, awareness regarding the importance of water conservation should be included in curriculums of schools so that future generations are better equipped to face the environmental challenges ahead. Also, irrational pricing of water, where a flat rate is applied or is provided free of charge, encourages irresponsible consumption and does not incentivize suppliers of water to upgrade their water supply, treatment and disposal facilities.
There is also a dire need to provide proper sanitation facilities to all households in Pakistan. Although significant strides have been made in this regard in recent decades, there is still a long way to go. According to the 2017 census, the percentage of housing units in the country that do not have bathrooms is 16.7 per cent, a decrease from 43.6 per cent in 1998. However, a significant portion of houses that do have bathrooms do not have latrines that are connected to proper sewerage systems.
The promising thing is that the government realizes the importance of issues raised here and is committed to preserving the environment and utilizing water and land resources more efficiently. The nationwide drive for the construction of Mohmand and Bhasha dams is a major step towards increasing storage capacity and in turn water security.
Similarly, the government’s Clean and Green Campaign is a good initiative which aims to increase awareness regarding cleanliness, create dumping sites for waste, provide public toilets, and incentivize districts to maintain high standards of cleanliness. Furthermore, this campaign aims to increase the forest cover in the country as it aims to plant 10 billion trees in five years. Trees are instrumental in protecting the environment as they reduce soil erosion, pollution in waterways, and the effects of flooding. They also provide habitats for many birds and animals.
Although Pakistan is in a precarious position, there is still hope if sustainable practices are adopted and if there is a visible change in people’s attitudes regarding natural resource management. Only then can we leave behind a country that is habitable for future generations.
Salman Khawar is a graduate of Columbia University, and currently works in the development sector of Pakistan.