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Water — Pakistan's Most Critical Challenge

Of all the challenges Pakistan is facing, water is the most critical. The country is among the leading five that face extremely high water stress and low access to safe drinking water and sanitation, according to the World Resources Institute.

Similarly, the United Nations categories Pakistan amongst those few unfortunate countries where water shortages could destabilize and jeopardize its existence in the next 10 years.

Today a quarter to a third of Pakistan’s population lacks access to safe drinking water. Both urban and rural populations suffer from water contamination and waterborne diseases. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals require us to ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

Considering the enormity of the challenge and high cost of doing nothing, it is time government accorded its highest priority to water issues

Few realize that the fresh water we receive through our rivers, fed by glaciers and rain, is no longer enough to meet our needs. With the increase in population and urbanization, now more than 60pc of Pakistan’s water is pumped from underground reservoirs. Some areas, such as in Baluchistan, access to the water below ground has fallen to 1,000 ft. In Lahore, groundwater tables have fallen in some parts by up to 65 feet in just the last five years. But of all the cities, Karachi faces the acutest water. The poor have to queue for hours to get drinking water. In the coming hot summers, water shortages could lead to violence.

Our mega dams at Tarbela and Mangla are 40-50 years old and their storage capacities have been falling because of silting and sedimentation. They store only 30 days of average water demand, compared to 1,000 days for Egypt and 220 days for India. After a hiatus of almost four decades, since Tarbela Dam was built, it was decided in 2006 to build another major multipurpose dam at Diamer-Bhasha. It’s been 10 years since then but construction has not yet started and it could take another decade to complete.

But adding only one major water reservoir would not be enough. In fact, it would only restore the storage capacity that Pakistan had three decades ago. It is high time that the government focuses on construction of other major dams. Kalabagh Dam would be the most doable. Since 1963, every aspect of this dam has been explored by top national and international experts and they have all been unanimous that this was the best option for providing cheap hydroelectricity and water storage. Unfortunately it has been highly politicized.

According to Shamsul Mulk, the acclaimed water and dams expert, the cost of delay has been Rs132bn per year only on account of cheaper electricity. Unlike other more expensive and remotely located dams, Kalabagh could be constructed in just four years.

The way forward

So far the government has been high on words but low on action. It has been deliberating on a National Water Policy but more than half way through its tenure it has failed to produce one. In September 2015, while reiterating the importance of water issues, the federal minister for planning and reforms promised to announce the long-delayed National Water Policy within three months. He had added that the coming generations would not forgive us if we do not take appropriate steps immediately to address water needs of growing urbanization.

Considering the enormity of the challenge and high cost of doing nothing, it is time government accorded its highest priority to water issues. There is a need to have a full time water czar. The current federal minister for water is overburdened with several portfolios including managing energy and looking after defence. What is needed is a full-time highly qualified technocrat to handle this assignment.

There needs to be a two-pronged approach addressing supply side as well as demand side issues. Over 95pc of Pakistan’s water is used for agriculture. Due to poor farming practices and almost free availability, most of the water is wasted. Even before water reaches the farms, almost 50pc is wasted through the crumbling canal infrastructure. The Governments’ policy of subsidizing water-intensive crops is another major factor, exacerbating the situation.

At this time of the year when budgetary allocations are being debated, it should be realized that the biggest challenge facing the country is the water crisis. Accordingly it should receive more allocations than any other sector be it defence or roads.

In 1991, it was due to efforts of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that the Indus Water Apportionment Accord was signed by all the provinces and has worked successfully for over 25 years. If Mr Sharif wants to leave another legacy, it should be a forward-looking national water policy, which has clearly defined goals for improving water-use, efficiency in agriculture and creating new water storage capacity that could at least provide enough resource for 220 days as is the case with India.

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