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Pakistan’s Water Insecurity: The Human Cost

Better management of the country’s water resources and infrastructure investment are the keys to a water-secure future.
by Sufia Zamir

As the recent monsoon rains pelted Karachi, its residents found themselves wading in knee-deep water in their homes and plunged into darkness after the city’s main electricity supplier—K-Electric—proved unable to cope. Outside in the streets, the uncollected carcasses of animals that had recently been slaughtered for the Eid-ul-Adha festival continued to rot, and the muddy streams flowing through the city turned red with blood. A few days later, flash floods in the Malir River—that flows through one of Karachi’s main industrial zones—left commuters stranded for hours on the nearby Korangi Causeway.

The torrential rains follow several years of extreme drought in Sindh and Balochistan. Recurrent droughts in these regions have led to crop failures and livestock losses, devastating the livelihoods of the local population. The resulting food insecurity paved the way for malnutrition and other health conditions that affected over four million people in the two provinces.

These two extreme situations illustrate Pakistan’s vulnerability to water “insecurity” in the form of either too much water or too little. However, the country’s woes are often inaccurately presented as being related to water scarcity alone. Dr. William Young of the World Bank’s Global Water Practice describes Pakistan as “water-rich”,  (only 16 countries in the world have more renewable water than Pakistan) and believes that, instead of focusing on water scarcity, the country should strive to improve water security. Thus, Pakistan needs to tackle a number of problems related to overall water insecurity.

The ramifications of unchecked urbanization

CREDIT: WWF PAKISTAN, Rainfall after prolonged drought does not always bring relief: locusts can prey on the vegetation that develops after the rains.

A handful of neglected parks are virtually the only vegetation in the concrete jungle that is Karachi. Such over-development can wreak havoc during periods of abnormal rainfall. As a consequence of concrete replacing green belts, it becomes difficult for rainwater to be absorbed into the ground, with the result that the streets remain flooded, sometimes for several days. Sewer lines that fail to handle the load of heavy rain exacerbate the situation.

This is the situation in which Karachi usually finds itself after periods of heavy rainfall. But this year, the city’s problems were worsened by a combination of stagnant rainwater, blood, and animal waste, resulting in one of the worst fly infestations the city had seen in decades. As the flies proliferated in the city, so did disease. Within three weeks, Karachi’s hospitals reported an unprecedented 10,000 cases of diarrhea, gastroenteritis, hepatitis A, and hepatitis E.

Bringing back the mangrove

The fate of Keti Bunder is directly linked with the mangrove forests of the Indus Delta. Located 150 kilometers from Karachi, Keti Bunder was once a thriving farming village. But as seawater gradually took over agricultural land, the farming community turned its attention to fishing. Today, 90% of the villagers are salt-water fishermen – and Keti Bunder is one of the most underdeveloped and neglected areas in Pakistan. Out of 48 of its settlements, 28 have been completely engulfed by the sea.

To escape the cycle of poverty, many fishermen turned towards Karachi, hoping to continue fishing in the mangrove forests in the various creeks in the city. But they did not fare as well as they had hoped: Karachi’s mangrove forests are being destroyed by the timber and real estate mafias as well as by the pollution from the industrial waste that is dumped in the Korangi Creek. Even though attempts are being made to replant mangroves in the creek, a study by LEAD Pakistan points out that pollution prevents new saplings from flourishing. Due to the chemical waste, the fish in the creek are dying and the people suffering from disease. With their poor education and limited skills, their only other options are to return to Keti Bunder or to live in squalor in one of Karachi’s slums with no other source of income.

However, the story of Keti Bunder is also an example of how a community can reverse its fortunes by addressing its problem of water insecurity. The fishermen are planting more salt-tolerant species of mangroves and new plantations are beginning to sprout around the delta. The community is also working with WWF Pakistan to install wind turbines to provide the town with electricity, while tankers are being arranged to supply clean drinking water. Keti Bunder still has a long way to go before it achieves economic prosperity, but at least it has made a start.

 

Droughts, floods and plagues

Erratic water supply affects agricultural output, leading to food insecurity, which in turn has deleterious health effects such as malnutrition. Flooding from too much rain not only kills people and devastates crops and livestock, it also destroys veterinary and human health facilities, preventing farmers from obtaining medical care for the surviving livestock and themselves. Additionally, floods can strip away fertile soil, contribute to waterlogging and salinity in farmlands, and destroy farming and fishing equipment. All of this limits farmers’ ability to sow crops in subsequent seasons.

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Too little rain can wreak just as much havoc. As of January 2019, drought affected more than four million people in 26 districts in Sindh and Balochistan. A report by the Department of Commerce and Livestock and Dairy Development at the University of Balochistan explains that persistent water shortages over the years have reduced the land available for grazing in Balochistan, leading to decreased yields of milk and meat, as well as illness and death among animals.

But rainfall after prolonged periods of drought does not always bring relief. Following the monsoon rains this year, swarms of desert locusts travelled from Iran to Balochistan and then made their way across Sindh, feeding on crops along the way. The FAO locust profile for Pakistan points out that the desert regions bordering Iran and India are particularly vulnerable to locust attacks and warns that, if locust populations remain unchecked, they will continue to ravage crops and cause famine.

While most people assume that the only reason refugees are forced to leave their homes is conflict, availability of water can play a much larger role in human migration than political instability. A World Water Development Report published by the UN in 2016 estimates that, by 2050, more than 200 million people worldwide will be forced to relocate due to desertification caused by prolonged drought.

Pakistan’s cities are not equipped to handle the massive influx of migrant farmers that stems from desertification. Karachi, for example, is already struggling to provide energy, affordable housing, water, healthcare, sanitation, education, transportation, and employment to its 15 million inhabitants. As a consequence, the city suffers from dangerously high levels of pollution, street crime, water shortages, and urban squalor, while high-rise buildings contribute to lethal heat waves. Lahore, which has, according to the 2017 census, experienced the highest urban growth rate in Pakistan, will go the same way if urban planning does not keep up with the rate of population expansion. Indeed, Lahore has already begun to experience the consequences, with an increasing development of high-rise buildings, and pollution levels that are amongst the highest in the world.

From pollution to purity

Industries often receive criticism for dumping waste into freshwater sources such as rivers and streams. In Pakistan, only one percent of industrial wastewater is treated before being discharged into a river, according to a report by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency. The sugarcane industry alone generates hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of wastewater a day, all of which ultimately finds its way into the Indus River. Not only does this chemical effluent eradicate marine life, it also poses serious health risks to humans who drink the contaminated water.

The Jamshoro factory of textile dye and chemical manufacturer Archroma Pakistan is located not far from the west bank of the Indus River. The company invests heavily in research related to water conservation and recycling, and hopes to one day achieve zero liquid discharge. The effluent treatment facility at Archroma’s Jamshoro factory currently converts up to 80 percent of its wastewater into clean, reusable water. This has allowed them to install a clean water supply line next to their plant through which they are able to provide 540,000 liters of water a day to the local community. By emulating this process, other companies too can do their bit for the communities around them and the environment at large.

 

From the mountains to the sea

Originating in the Himalayas, the Indus River flows through Pakistan until it reaches the Arabian Sea, and is the lifeline on which Pakistan’s agriculture depends. But the river has been exploited so much for so long that it dries up by the time it reaches the Kotri Barrage (the last barrage before the Indus reaches the Arabian Sea) and no longer flows into the sea, thereby threatening the livelihoods of those living along the lower Indus.

As a consequence, all 17 creeks of the Indus River delta have dried up. When combined with rising sea levels, this situation is disastrous for the fishing communities that derive their income from the mangrove forests lining the delta. For, as the quantity of freshwater declines, the Indus loses its velocity by the time it reaches the Arabian Sea. Rising sea water thus meets with no resistance and easily enters the delta, replacing the river freshwater with saline water that renders agricultural land useless and destroys the mangrove forests. According to a study published by LEAD Pakistan, the sea has intruded 54 kilometers into the delta and is continuing to push further.

CREDIT: WWF PAKISTAN, Pakistan’s northern mountains are prone to glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), in which millions of cubic meter of water and debris cascade down the mountainside to the villages below.

On the other side of the country, miles above sea level, in Pakistan’s northern areas, water insecurity manifests itself in the form of floods, either due to heavy rainfall or glacier melt, or a combination of both. A report co-authored by ecological experts from China, Nepal, India and Bangladesh, warns that the Himalayas and the Hindukush mountain ranges will lose two-thirds of their ice fields by 2100 if climate change continues at the present rate. The Himalayas have lost up to a quarter of their ice cover within the past four decades already. The consequences of this glacial melt will be an increase in the creation of potentially hazardous glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), in which millions of cubic meters of water and debris can cascade down the mountain to the inhabited areas at lower altitudes, destroying lives and property along the way.

Ineptitude, indifference, and inaction

In 2014, the Planning Commission of Pakistan rolled out a 100-page document titled “Pakistan 2025: One Nation, One Vision”, which proposed a roadmap that would enable Pakistan to become one of the world’s top 25 economies by 2025, and a top 10 economy by 2047—one of the priority areas of this document was “Energy, Water and Food Security.” In 2017, the National Climate Change Act led to the establishment of the Ministry of Climate Change. The following year, after over a decade of delays, Pakistan’s first ever National Water Policy (NWP) was finally approved.

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Yet, per capita water availability in Pakistan has declined in recent years: from 1,306 cubic meters in 2015 to slightly over 1,000 cubic meters by 2019. This figure is expected to fall still further to 500 cubic meters by 2040.

Why is it that Pakistan continues to experience the effects of water insecurity? There are several reasons, chief of them incompetence, and this encompasses the entire country: from individual members of the public, to corporations, to the government itself.
Dr. Pervaiz Amir, Director of the Pakistan Watership Program and member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change, is a very vocal critic of the way the government is tackling the problem of water insecurity. He finds it “absolutely appalling” that Pakistan’s two port cities, Karachi and Gwadar, continue to face water shortages, and that residents have to spend tens of thousands of rupees a month on sourcing water from tankers.

Dr. Amir feels that water security has never been a priority for Pakistan. “Right now we do not have a single expert [who can analyze the situation and develop a solution]. Instead, all we do is blame India for a situation which we created ourselves.” As a consequence, the government is focusing on the wrong problem: “It is not true that Pakistan will ‘run out’ of water. Pakistan has the same amount of water that it had in 1947, give or take a few acre feet. The real issue is per capita availability of water, which has drastically declined due to exponential increases in the population. No one talks about population increase.”

Maheen Malik, Country Coordinator at the Alliance for Water Stewardship, reveals that, during her dealings with government departments, documents were passed around from one table to the next, contact persons kept changing, and she had to start from scratch with every new person who came in. Applying for a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) for her organization’s projects was also revealing of the mindset behind those purportedly assessing development projects for their environmental impact. “Applying for an Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] merely means ‘how to present your case to get a NOC’. We know in advance what to add and what to omit in our proposals in order to get NOCs.”

Imran Saqib Khalid of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) has had similar experiences. According to him, government evaluators lacked not only a technical understanding of the proposals presented to them, but also the desire to conduct a site visit. “They would simply write ‘no significant impact’ [on the environment]. Projects would thus get approved. People who raised objections would be hushed.”

Lack of regulation

The government’s lack of seriousness is evident in its National Water Policy document, which is rife with contradictions—suggesting that it has either been plagiarized or put together carelessly. For example, the Policy calls for both the outright banning of flood irrigation (widely recognized as water-inefficient) and priority investment in water courses meant for flood irrigation. Additionally, of the Policy’s 33 objectives, none mention any specific target or timeframe. As a consequence, it is very difficult to monitor progress and measure performance.

Minister of State for Climate Change Zartaj Gul accepts that past and present governments have been slow to take action. Acknowledging that Pakistan did not develop its water storage capacity following the Indus Waters Treaty that divides the waters in the Indus System of Rivers between India and Pakistan, she admitted, “We treat the Indus Waters Treaty as little more than a relic of Pakistan Studies textbooks.”

Yet another problem is the government’s agricultural price support, whereby crops which require large amounts of water (such as wheat) are being subsidized by the government at the expense of other crops which require less water-usage (almonds and oranges, for example).

In Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) by-laws require the design of homes to incorporate rainwater harvesting systems, which enable the collection and reuse of rainwater. Apart from the lack of enforcement by the CDA, Khalid believes that the main reason why people fail to install such systems is ignorance as to their necessity. Another reason, according to environmental lawyer Ahmad Rafay Alam, is the way in which water is billed. In the Punjab, for example, many water bills are linked not to actual usage, but to the rental value of the property. And because bills are capped at a few thousand rupees, wealthy households may have few qualms about abusing water.

Another consequence of the lack of regulation is the indiscriminate corporate use of tubewells and suction pumps which deplete the water table. In Lahore, Khalid explains, the rate of groundwater extraction is so high that the water table has dropped by several hundred feet. Gul states that the government no longer recommends factories to be set up in Lahore. “But factory owners manage to pull strings to get the required permission anyway”.  According to Dr. Amir, a similar situation exists in Balochistan.

CREDIT: WWF PAKISTAN, SIMON RAWLES

Infrastructure investment: The key to water security

Despite the importance of water security to a country like Pakistan, the reality is that improving water access and quality cannot be achieved without massive investment in infrastructure. Some of the water systems in use date back to the British period. In this context, collaboration between the government, the media, corporations, and academia can serve as an important mechanism to bring funding and knowledge to this sector.

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One common problem identified by various experts is the inability of policymakers to understand the scientific and technical information that is presented to them. This, then, leads to the question: how can such knowledge be communicated to them? Khalid suggests an increase in the number of events and workshops highlighting water insecurity in Pakistan, and that government officials be invited to attend them. Gul believes that the government needs to be more open to hearing from Pakistani as well as international experts and evaluating their proposals on the basis of merit rather than political affiliations or personal grudges.

Khalid also believes that government departments should improve their internal communication so that, even if secretaries are changed, their replacements can easily pick up from where their predecessors left off. At the same time, he feels that organizations should learn to work with the government structures that are already in place. “Figure out the bureaucracy and work accordingly,” he recommends.

The second set of solutions requires the media to communicate the issues to the general public and decision-makers in order to set the national discourse, sway opinions, and motivate people to take action. Khalid believes that experts and political spokespersons should be able to present their arguments to the public in a simplified manner, allowing for greater collaboration.

An example of public and private collaboration to resolve Pakistan’s water insecurity can be seen in the way corporations have been working with the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council and its subdivisions to promote drip irrigation in the country.

Fruits in the desert

Located between the Jhelum and Indus rivers near the Potohar Plateau in Punjab, Thal is an expanse of desert with a length of 190 miles and a breadth of 70 miles at its widest point. Three-fourths of the terrain consists of sand dunes, while in the rest of the desert, settlements are few and far between. The area is largely underdeveloped, and the people lack access to reliable utilities, health services, and schools. The main source of livelihood in this desert is agriculture and livestock rearing, but most of the farmholdings do not exceed five acres in size. The main cash crop, “channa” (or gram), is highly susceptible to drought, and any crop losses cause farmers to incur heavy debts, forcing them either to sell their livestock or migrate.

With the help of the National Agricultural Research Council (NARC), some of the farmers began implementing drip irrigation. Not only did the system of solar-powered tubewells counter the problem of unreliable electricity, it also kept operational costs in control by eliminating the requirement of diesel. Drip irrigation has thus allowed these farmers to move away from low-value channa to citrus fruits, dates, and falsas which can fetch a much higher market value.

According to Dr. Ghulam Muhammad Ali, Director General of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), some farmers have used the moisture in the soil of these crops to simultaneously grow watermelons among the roots of these fruit trees. The watermelon harvest alone allowed them to recover the initial cost of the drip irrigation system within a single year, as compared to the four or five years it would have otherwise have taken. NARC hopes to use this example to guide farmers in other regions on intercropping, or growing crops among different kinds of crops, to help them recover their costs much sooner.

 

‘More crop per drop’

Traditional flood irrigation techniques are highly water-inefficient, and the government’s Climate, Energy and Water Resources Institute (CEWRI), a subdivision of the National Agricultural Research Center (NARC), is dedicated to developing technologies that will enable farmers to get more productive yields from lower water usage. Since 1991, CEWRI has been experimenting with drip irrigation, a technique whereby  water and fertilizers are slowly introduced to the root system of crops through a series of pipes, tubes, and valves. This system not only allows these inputs to be introduced in a focused area, but also prevents water loss due to evaporation.

NARC director Dr. Bashir Ahmed explained why his organization is trying to promote drip irrigation: “By moving towards drip technologies, we can use 30-60% less water and potentially increase efficiency to 80 to 90%.” He adds that flood irrigation requires terrain to be level, but drip systems can be used in areas like Thal, where the terrain is lined with dunes and boulders.

Despite the obvious benefits of the drip irrigation system, uptake has been slow, with only 0.1 percent of Pakistan’s total cultivated land utilizing this technique. The biggest deterrents remain lack of awareness and cost. NARC is attempting to address the former problem by providing farmers with training and practical demonstrations. And while operational costs have been reduced through the use of solar-powered systems, farmers remain hesitant due to the substantial initial investment.

To help farmers meet these costs, the government of Punjab has offered to subsidize 60% of the initial investment, with the remaining 40% to be put up either by the farmer or an investing corporation. Today, according to NARC, more than 10,000 farmers in the Punjab, mostly located in the Potohar Plateau, have successfully implemented drip irrigation on their farms. Dr. Ghulam Mohammad Ali, Director General of the Pakistan Agricultural Council, adds that the government of Sindh has also recently begun to implement the project.

A model farm operated by Nestle Pakistan at the National Agricultural Research Center, Islamabad, uses solar-powered tubewells to eliminate operational costs, making drip irrigation more cost-effective for farmers.

The investment required to implement the above solutions is large, and the process is a long one, but the water insecurity problems facing Pakistan are not intractable. If the government, corporations, academia, the media, and the public are educated regarding the issues and motivated to resolve them, the country can stave off the climate crisis that threatens to engulf it.

The writer is a member of staff.

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