Pakistan is running dry and water conservation is a must

The risk of water scarcity is currently the talk of the town. The words of Neil Buhne, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan, capture the horrors of this notion, “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 scarcity,”. In order to come to such a conclusion, a certain scrutiny based on facts and figures is required which can tell whether this statement holds any ground or not.

Water availability statistics from Human Development in South Asia (MHHDC, 2013) show that Pakistan is the seventh-ranked country in the region in terms of water availability. Its neighbor India, who shares one of the largest river systems of the world with Pakistan, is the top-ranked south Asian country in this regard. The rivers in Pakistan only carry 194 million-acre feet of the water which in comparison is a mere 12% of that in India. The ground only contains 45 million-acre feet of water which is again just 12% of groundwater in India. 494 milliliters of water is carried as precipitation which is 45% of that in India. Considering the worsening climate situation these figures are expected to further diminish.

When looking at the water storage capacity of the country, statistics (From World Bank report of 2006) show that Pakistan’s live storage capacity is 150 cubic meters per capita (m3/capita). The closest countries in terms of storage capacity are India with 220 m3/capita and Ethiopia with 90 m3/capita. In comparison, Spain has a storage capacity of 1450 m3/capita and the United States has a 6000 m3/capita. The water stress level in Pakistan is at an alarming level. It shows a decrease in the per capita water which is expected to reach a below 500 m3/capita after 20253,4. At this level, Pakistan will be considered an absolute water scarce country. Pakistan needs to obtain a water capacity of more than 1700 m3/capita to be considered unstressed and safe.

Now, keeping the entirety of the discussion above in perspective, let us move our focus from the supply side towards the demand side. The Population census of 2017 shows an increase of 1.97% per annum. Which translates into the growing household demand for water. At this rate, the demand and supply of water are moving farther and farther apart. The requirements of water have increased substantially as compared to the beginning of the decade till now. Water usage in the year 2001 was 108 Million-acre Feet (MAF) and it is expected to reach 143.2 MAF by the year 2025. Apart from the usage in agriculture and household, a great amount of water is used in industries of Pakistan. The year 2025 will see a water usage of 3.5 MAF in the industrial sector which is 2001 was 2.2 MAF.

WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation, in 2013, provided statistics showing pressure on water resources, dependency ratios and access to safely managed water for different countries. Pakistan showed one of the highest ratios for pressure on freshwater resources which was 74% compared to the other south Asian countries such as Iran with 68%, India with 34% and Bangladesh with 3. Furthermore, the dependency ratio, which is the share of water originating outside the country, paints a similar picture. Pakistan has the dependency ratio of 78% which is the second highest among the south Asian countries. India in comparison has a dependency ratio of 31% while Iran has 7%. The access to safely managed water services shows a very low figure i.e. 36% which calculated for Iran is 91% and for Bangladesh is 56%.

By looking at the water withdrawal statistics for different sectors, it can be observed that the increase in the water usage started in the late 80s and ever since then the curve has become steeper and steeper. Usage of water among industries adds to the economic growth as an argument such benefits, more or less, justify the need. But Pakistan also faces the dilemma of wastage of water. Apart from the agricultural and household wastage, industrial and commercial sector waste is around 11% (6% and 5% respectively) of the total waste. 90 percent of this industrial and municipal waste, which is largely untreated and toxic, is dumped into open drains and filtrated into aquifers.

In conclusion, one arrives at the verdict that Pakistan, in fact, should not dust these warnings under the carpet. The risk is evidence-based and a troublesome future is imminent. As a result, now is the time to develop a national-level game plan that will enable Pakistan in overcoming such odds, effectively.