What do we need to know about the water crisis in Pakistan?

It is a common perception that the water crisis in Pakistan is a distant threat. Contrary to this belief, we are currently amidst a ticking timebomb where more than 200 million people will find themselves water starved if we do not act now. This is increasingly evident from growing water scarcity, resource depletion and contamination in many parts of the country.

Surprisingly the primary reason for this growing crisis is not that we are running out of water, but that we are not able to manage and value water as a resource. In fact, Pakistan has enough water present in nature that the World Bank recently reported that only 35 countries are more water abundant in the world than Pakistan. Yet, our population is categorized among the band of countries facing extreme water risk.

To further add to our vulnerability in managing water, climate change is inducing pressure on our existing systems through invariable rainfall, frequent droughts and flooding. Pakistan is currently reported as the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change by the thinktank, Germanwatch. The way climate change acts is that it creates uncertainty. For instance, too little water at a time when it is needed most can result in droughts and food insecurity. Conversely, too much water in the form of floods or storms can devastate an entire population. Between 2000 to 2011, Pakistan faced an economic loss of US$10 billion, which is the third-highest in South Asia, after India and China. In 2010 alone, Pakistan saw one of the most devastating floods in the history of the country, affecting approximately one-fifth of the total land area of the country, impacting 20 million people, and causing an economic impact of US$4.5 billion. 


Sohaib Waseem Anwar is Coordinator Projects - AWS, Freshwater Programme at WWF-Pakistan.

“Knowing that a looming water crisis is a real threat to Pakistan, as science and evidence proves it, the question that needs to be answered is how big is this issue for us?” 

What is the scale of the water crisis in Pakistan?

Knowing that a looming water crisis is a real threat to Pakistan, as science and evidence proves it, the question that needs to be answered is how big is this issue for us? How quickly is it building up and how should we prepare for it? Any delays in finding answers to these questions will only let the issue grow and keep us from finding solutions. Before answering these questions, let us first understand the macro context of the water situation in the country.

Pakistan’s total water availability is 250 billion cubic metres (BCM), out of which 90 per cent goes to agriculture, four per cent to industry and six per cent to domestic consumption. This means that out of 250 BCM, 15 (BCM) is available for domestic consumption - that is about 15 trillion litres of bottled water, to put it into context. Keeping agriculture and industrial water consumptions aside, if we only analyze our domestic water systems, out of more than 200 million people, 70 per cent do not have access to safe drinking water, and 80 per cent do not have access to both safe drinking water and sanitation combined

"If we only analyze our domestic water systems, out of more than 200 million people, 70 per cent do not have access to safe drinking water, and 80 per cent do not have access to both safe drinking water and sanitation combined."

This means only 20 per cent, i.e. 40 million people have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. We continue to witness a decline in per capita water availability in Pakistan every year. Our access to water is currently 950 cubic metres per person, which is well below the Falkenmark Water Stress Indicator, a common indicator used by water experts which has a threshold mark of 1,000 cubic metres per person, putting us in the category of a water-stressed nation. In terms of total storage, our current water situation is such that the entire population only has a 30 day water reserve. Comparatively, India has a reserve of 220 days, while USA, Canada and Australia have reserves of over 1,000 days.

On top of this, inefficiencies in our current water management systems in agriculture and industry continue to grow, as more and more water is pumped out, in many cases unregulated, from surface and groundwater bodies, with lesser contributions to recharging our water resources. For example, we pump between 45 to 55 Million Acre Feet (MAF) of water from groundwater reserves and are returning only 30 to 35 MAF, causing our groundwater resources to deplete fast. The city of Lahore, for instance, is experiencing a three to four feet drop in groundwater, while Karachi is facing a deficit of 500 Million Gallons per Day (MGD). Islamabad too is losing the capacity of its main source of water, the Rawal Dam, of which we saw glimpses of dry patches last year.

Similar evidence is building up for every city and village in Pakistan! Even at the micro-level, our water utilization is highly inequitable, where affluent communities can afford water for their use whereas poor communities in rural and urban centres are already facing frequent drought conditions and sanitation problems. For instance, affluent communities consume 10 times more water than the global average, i.e. they consume 100 gallons per day versus a global average of 10 gallons. Whereas, the poor have no access.

Our internal water usage is discrepant, as wastage of water continues at household levels, for instance, excessive car washing, shower times, kitchen waste etc. without the realization that this resource is highly invariable and disproportionately distributed. All because there is no price associated with water and it is not properly metered.

What happens if we continue to undervalue water as a resource and what impact can it have?

So, what happens if we continue to undervalue water as a resource showing a lack of appreciation? 

Our current water systems will start facing external pressures, both natural and human-induced, which continue to grow until our systems reach points of failure, which will be irreversible in a short span of time. The macro issues we are witnessing, such as declining storage capacities, resource exploitation and contaminations will trickle down to reach our homes. With increasing pressure, we will face a challenge to keep pace with the rising demand for water for the over 200 million population of Pakistan. For example, densely populated urban clusters will continue to grow, shrinking per household water accessibility. More wealthier populations might sustain the situation a little longer as they would be able to purchase access to water, however the less fortunate will suffer the most, causing inequitable water distribution. With a growing demand for food, every cropping season will face difficulties in meeting agricultural water demands, leading to a shortage of food supplies in local markets and with a possible hike in prices, increasing abstraction of groundwater by industries, housing communities and the agriculture sector combined, and invariable rainfalls extracting water from our water storages at a much faster rate than they are recharged at. Eventually, we will witness situations where running tap water will be a luxury as there will be frequent water load shedding, price hikes in water-related commodities, sanitation inaccessibility, biodiversity loss, increase in waterborne diseases, possible communal conflicts or a worst-case scenario - a water emergency in the entire country!

How should we go about addressing the current water situation in Pakistan? 

Let us address each issue one by one.

Firstly, at the macro scale, we must pressurize our government, at the national, provincial and municipal levels to prioritize water resource management through policy interventions such as commercial water use pricing, water metering, groundwater abstraction caps etc.

Second, it is very important for the government to prioritize and proactively work to increase storage capacities to ensure the quota of at least 120 days of storage capacity, for both natural and man-made storages, and invest more to improve the water supply and sanitation service delivery.

Third, our government and citizens collectively need to protect our natural ecosystems, our rivers, lakes and oceans. Our small, large, urban and rural nullahs (drains) need regular cleanups and proper waste disposal so that the natural ecosystem can maintain its balance. The best indication of healthy waterways is when you can find small fish floating in them.

Fourth, we must realize that water is not a free resource, it has a price that we need to acknowledge. People misuse water running from their taps because they do not pay enough for it. But just consider the fact that 20 years ago you could drink water from your taps because it was obtained from a local source and was clean. Now we pay private companies and the water they bring us is highly processed, and from far off sources. Paying for water services to the government can ensure that this money will be spent to protect local water resources. However, with no action in place, the crisis is already staring in our faces. And it will only be a matter of time before we lose all access to water resources because we did not pay enough to sustain them.

In conclusion, it is necessary to reiterate that the water crisis in Pakistan is associated with how less we appreciate our water resources. It is not due to the non-availability of freshwater, but because of non-accessibility due to mismanagement and lack of appreciation. The only way to resolve this is to manage it through an increased level of appreciation at all levels!