More than a billion people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water, a basic necessity, on World Water Day today. In Pakistan alone, 38.5 million people lack access to safe drinking water and 50.7 million people lack access to improved sanitation, according to published data. Pakistanis are facing unprecedented shortage of clean drinking water and electricity due to the lowest recorded levels of water in the country's dams, according to Pakistani Meteorological Department. The mortality rate for children under-five in Pakistan is 99 deaths per 1000 children, according to Global Health Council. About half of under-five deaths occur in six countries with large populations: India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Pakistan and China. Water and sanitation related diseases are responsible for 60% of the total number of child mortality cases in Pakistan, with diarrheal diseases causing deaths of 200,000 under-five years’ children, every year. Unsafe drinking water is shown to lead to poverty through time spent by women and girls to fetch ‘drinkable’ water from long distances. The combination of unsafe water consumption and poor hygiene practices require treatments for water borne illnesses, decreased working days, and also contribute to lowering of educational achievement due to reduced school attendance by children.
It is sad to see the growing water crisis in Pakistan whose Indus Valley has been the center of some of the world’s greatest civilizations: Harappa and Mohenjo Daro (2600 to 1900 BC) and Gandhara, (1st-5th Centuries AD); their social, agricultural and economic systems were based on their interactions with rivers (Indus and its tributaries, including the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej and Kabul rivers, etc.) which provided irrigation and created fertile land for farming. Archaeologists believe that people of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa lived in sturdy brick houses that had as many as three floors. The houses had bathrooms that were connected to sewers. Their elaborate drainage system was centuries ahead of their time. A well established history, tradition and system of water management and entitlements has existed, from the Indus Valley Civilization to the 1960 Indus Water Treaty and the 1991 Water Accord which establish clear entitlements for each province and for each canal command to surface waters.
Pakistan is facing a severe water shortage this year. According to a 2006 World Bank report, the country is fast moving from being a “water stressed country to a water scarce country”, mainly due to its high population growth, and water is becoming the key development issue. The groundwater is over-exploited and polluted in many areas; most of the water infrastructure (even some of the major barrages) is in poor repair; the entire system of water management is not financially sustainable. However, large parts of Pakistan have good soils, sunshine and excellent farmers; it can get much more value from the existing flows.
Among the 25 most populous countries in 2009, South Africa, Egypt and Pakistan are the most water-limited nations. India and China, however, are not far behind with per capita renewable water resources of only 1600 and 2100 cubic meters per person per year. Major European countries have up to twice as much renewable water resources per capita, ranging from 2300 (Germany) to 3000 (France) cubic meters per person per year. The United States of America, on the other hand, has far greater renewable water resources than China, India or major European countries: 9800 cubic meters per person per year. By far the largest renewable water resources are reported from Brazil and the Russian Federation - with 31900 and 42500 cubic meters per person per year.
According to the United Nations' World Water Development Report, the total actual renewable water resources in Pakistan decreased from 2,961 cubic meters per capita in 2000 to 1,420 cubic meters in 2005. A more recent study indicates an available supply of water of little more than 1,000 cubic meters per person, which puts Pakistan in the category of a high stress country. Using data from the Pakistan's federal government's Planning and Development Division, the overall water availability has decreased from 1,299 cubic meters per capita in 1996-97 to 1,101 cubic meters in 2004-05. In view of growing population, urbanization and increased industrialization, the situation is likely to get worse. If the current trends continue, it could go as lows as 550-cubic meters by 2025. Nevertheless, excessive mining of groundwater goes on. Despite a lowering water table, the annual growth rate of electric tubewells has been indicated to 6.7% and for diesel tubewells to about 7.4%. In addition, increasing pollution and saltwater intrusion threaten the country's water resources. About 36% of the groundwater is classified as highly saline.
In urban areas, most water is supplied from groundwater except for the cities of Karachi, Hyderabad and a part of Islamabad, where mainly surface water is used. In most rural areas, groundwater is used. In rural areas with saline groundwater, irrigation canals serve as the main source of domestic water.
Out of the 169,384 billion cubic meters of water which were withdrawn since 2000, 96% were used for agricultural purposes, leaving 2% for domestic and another 2% for industrial use. By far most water is used for irrigated agriculture. With the world's largest contiguous irrigation system, Pakistan has harnessed the Indus River to transform 35.7 million acres for cultivation in otherwise arid conditions. Yet,the sector contributes less than 20% of the Pakistan's GDP and Pakistan remains a food-deficit nation.
In sharp contrast to the peaks of the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas at the headwaters of the Indus River, the Indus valley plain flattens out dramatically as it runs to the sea.
The very low rainfall, poor drainage, ancient marine deposits, saline groundwater, and evaporation and transpiration combine to create a vast salt sink.
The steady expansion of irrigation and agriculture added greatly to this process of accumulating salt that over time waterlogging and soil salinity have emerged to threaten the sustainability of Pakistan’s agricultural system.
Pakistan is currently experiencing water stress and will soon face outright water scarcity. High population growth is causing ‘water stress.’ Pakistan is using almost all its water resources today and no more are available. If something goes drastically wrong with the salt/sediment/water balance of the Indus system, there is no other river system in the region to draw on.
A World Bank report recommends that Pakistan needs to set up new water reservoirs on an urgent basis, citing scarcity of water to get worse in the near future.
The aging and inadequate irrigation and water infrastructure deficit alone is estimated at US $70 billion. Pakistan needs to invest almost US $1 billion per year in new large dams and related infrastructure over the next five years.
According to the World Bank data, Pakistan only stores 30 days of river water, India stores 120 days, while the Colorado River System in the US has storage capacity of up to 900 days of water usage. The report says that new water reservoirs will push Pakistan’s economy forward. It says that a new dam can potentially add four to five percent to Pakistan’s GDP.
Water is also essential for power generation in Pakistan, but only about 20% is generated by hydroelectric power plants. The current power shortage of approximately 2,000 megawatts will increase to 6,000 megawatts by the year 2010 and 30,700 megawatts by the year 2020. Pakistan has the potential to generate as much as 50,000 MW of hydroelectric power, more than twice its total current generating capacity of 20,000 MW from all sources, which is far short of the nation's needs, limiting Pakistan's social and economic growth prospects.
In addition to the development of new water reservoirs, serious conservation steps need to be taken to improve the efficiency of water use in Pakistani agriculture which claims almost all of the available fresh water resources. A California study recently found that water use efficiency ranged from 60%-85% for surface irrigation to 70%-90% for sprinkler irrigation and 88%-90% for drip irrigation. Potential savings would be even higher if the technology switch were combined with more precise irrigation scheduling and a partial shift from lower-value, water-intensive crops to higher-value, more water-efficient crops. Rather than flood irrigation used in Pakistani agriculture, there is a need to explore the use of drip or spray irrigation to make better use of nation's scarce water resources before it is too late. As a first step toward improving efficiency, Pakistan government has launched a 1.3 billion U.S. dollar drip irrigation program that could help reduce water waste over the next five years. Early results are encouraging. "We installed a model drip irrigation system here that was used to irrigate cotton and the experiment was highly successful. The cotton yield with drip irrigation ranged 1,520 kg to 1,680 kg per acre compared to 960 kg from the traditional flood irrigation method," according to Wajid Ishaq, a junior scientist at the Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB).
Beyond the urgent need for improving farm water use efficiency, Pakistan must address the safety of drinking water to improve the health of its people. It must take steps to protect its water streams from industrial pollution and sewage discharge. Along with various international institutions and NGOs, the leadership should undertake projects that will help in providing hygiene and sanitation promotion and community mobilization along with extensive capacity building in order to complement Pakistan's substantial investments in hardware for safe drinking water. A big part of it is education, followed by practical assistance to communities in setting up better sewage treatment and waste disposal systems that are locally supported by cities and towns.
The Medium Term Development Framework 2005-2010 provides for about US$404 million per year government spending for water supply and sanitation projects and is accompanied by several policy documents with the objective to notably improve water and sanitation coverage and quality. Availability of clean water in reasonable abundance is essential for sustaining life and improving the future of the people of Pakistan. The challenges are great and the stakes are very high. Failure is not an option.
But the challenges of poor sanitation are too big and complex to expect Pakistani government alone to deal with them. The nation's private sector and NGOs must rise to the occasion. There are successful examples of private citizens addressing sanitation issues on a local, community level. For instance, Dr. Akhtar Hamid Khan is the force behind Orangi Pilot Project to help residents of Orangi Town, a katchi abadi (shanty town) in Karachi to help themselves. It has assisted in a number of projects to build better low-cost housing, improve sanitation and establish schools with the participation of the community. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Acclaimed social scientist Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan used to reference this well-known proverb (according to his son, Akbar Khan), as it quite fittingly represents his philosophy on community development.
While the problems faced by Pakistan are huge, I believe that a serious and organized initiative by a tiny percentage of Pakistan's large middle class of at least 40-50m people can begin to make a difference. Pakistanis owe it to themselves and their poor brethren to step up and take responsibility for improving the situation of the most vulnerable citizens of their country. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But we must persevere by taking one step after another until we see results.