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Water under the bridge

About Rs25 billion worth of water is wasted every year. That’s what the Wapda chairman reportedly told the Public Accounts Committee earlier this week. That is an understatement. Only about 10 percent of the available 145 million acre feet (maf) of water can be stored in existing reservoirs – global average is around 40 percent. Thanks to insufficient storage capacity and systemic losses, the waste is huge.

Some 30 maf water flows down to the sea on average, as against the ecological need of only 10 maf per annum. The remaining 20 maf is a pure waste. Globally, economic value of water is around $2 billion per maf. Even if one halves that figure to $1 billion given Pakistan is a developing country, annual water loss comes to around $20 billion, or 7 percent of GDP! This doesn’t take into account pre-canal system losses (10maf) and post-canal conveyance losses (40maf) while channeling water to the farm gates.

Only two large dams have been built since the country’s inception. Since then, per capita water availability has shrunk 80 percent to just over a thousand cubic meters. That’s a damning indictment of the country’s rulers both past and present. What to talk of new dams, over time the storage capacity of existing dams has also eroded. As of 2015, storage capacity at Tarbela Dam and Mangla Dam had eroded by 34 percent and 10 percent, respectively, due to reservoir sedimentation.

Benefits of building larger dams go beyond saving a few extra maf’s of water. Large dams can be used to produce hydroelectricity, which is a cheap and clean source of power. In a flood-exposed country like Pakistan, dams in strategic areas can also help in flood mitigation. Besides, the country can save some rainwater, too, which currently goes to waste.

The human cost of water negligence is that Pakistan is on the way to become an “extremely high” water-stressed country within a generation’s time. The planners need to have a holistic approach. On the supply-side, building storage capacity of an additional 20 maf is critical. But the government focus on singularly developing hydropower projects is coming at the expense of building large dams. With scarce financing, progress on Diamer-Bhasha Dam is slow. A prospective inclusion in CPEC may expedite it.

On the demand side, bulk of available water supplies is consumed by agriculture sector, which sustains country’s food basket. Stemming the channel losses and inefficient irrigation practices can save water. In the area of household, industrial and commercial use, introducing water rights and proper pricing can help bring in allocatable efficiencies. Overall, water use in Pakistan is highly inefficient. Water’s GDP contribution per cubic meter in Pakistan pales in comparison to global average.

Such issues have been highlighted by BR Research earlier on various occasions. A lack of appreciation of the economic and human costs of water wastages still widely exists.

And the pressures are only going to get worse. On one hand is the rise in population that adds to the pressure. Then there is climate change with all its debilitating effects on fresh water supplies.

It will be criminal to ignore water issues any longer. Pakistan faces a number of problems. Water management has to be on the top of the list. While planners can expect a little help from China to expand storage capacity, the issue of looming water scarcity will not be solved until and unless all aspects of water management, including those on the demand-side, are also tackled.

Source: Business Recorder

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