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Indian pumps depleting ground water in Pakistan

LAHORE - Massive extraction of groundwater for agriculture purposes by hundreds of thousands of subsidised tube-wells in India has put the underground water resources of Pakistan at risk.

Leading water experts believe the situation is dangerous for both the countries since no international law or mutual treaty between Pakistan and India specifically regulates the use of trans-boundary groundwater resources.

They say groundwater extraction is negatively impacting water tables, which are plummeting by two to three meters a year, with groundwater levels falling to inaccessible depths in many wells in areas located on Indus basin.

Unregulated groundwater extraction has also increased the area of salt-affected soils to more than five million hectares, amounting to over 22 percent of Pakistan's irrigated lands, according to experts.

Information collected through different Indian websites by The Nation shows more than two million agriculture tube-wells operate only in two neighbouring Indian states, Punjab and Haryana, almost equal to number of total water pumps in Pakistan. Water withdrawal in other Indian states situated partially or wholly within Indus basin is also at high level.

A study conducted by LEAD-Pakistan, also highlighted the alarming situation about depleting groundwater reserves of the region. Collecting information through NASA images, the study pointed out that groundwater extraction in India might be affecting groundwater in Pakistan.

Leading environmentalist Ahmad Rafay Alam views the situation as critical for both the countries, stressing cooperation between Pakistan and India for fair and efficient use of underground waters in Indus basin region.

“Yes, the underground water reserves of Pakistan are at risk but the situation equally dangerous for India,” he told The Nation.

Quoting the LEAD study, to which he contributed, he added: “Information collected by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (“GRACE”) satellite mission of changes in the territorial water storage in the Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi proved the water withdrawals for irrigation and other uses were heavily depleting the groundwater reserves of these regions.”

About the possibilities of cooperation on trans-boundary water, he said the Indus Water Treaty only pertained to the surface water and there has been limited consideration of trans-boundary aquifers in international law and only a limited number of agreements on trans-boundary aquifers exist.

He suggested for seeking guidelines through UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Water Courses. But, he added, Pakistan and India had not ratified the UN Convention. “Realising the dangerous situation, both countries must extend cooperation in the form of shared and reliable research data on groundwater resources,” he said.

Rafay said the Wapda in Pakistan and the Central Groundwater Authority in India were two powerful institutions that had the mandate to proceed to secure the resources.

“Mutual trust and conducive relationship is pre-requisite between India and Pakistan for joint assessment and management of trans-boundary water especially to tap aquifer systems for mutual benefits.”

The institutions prior to extend mutual cooperation should identify trans-boundary aquifers and develop scientific mapping within the countries boundaries, he suggested.Khalid Mohtadullah, former member Wapda and a top water expert, said the cooperation between the two countries on groundwater resources was the need of the hour.

“We have to develop our data which we don’t have so far before raising the issue with India,” he told The Nation.

Hamid Sarfraz, a leading water expert who served as a policymaker with top government and international organizations, said there was no scientific study at government level which could determine the over-extraction and under-extraction of groundwater.

Talking to The Nation, he said the government should focus on building small and big water reservoirs on war footing along with groundwater extraction should determine through scientific study. He also spoke in favour of re-visiting Indus Water Treaty according to the modern needs.

“Indus Water Treaty was the comprehensive agreement when it was signed but unfortunately both countries have not felt the need on its further development. Islamabad and New Delhi must review the treaty considering the future challenges,” he proposed.

Article by Iftikhar Alam; Published in The Nation on 11-Aug-2016.