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Water scarcity in Pakistan by Savera Hayat


The problem of water scarcity in Pakistan does not solely stem from a shortage of resources. Its roots also lie in the realm of awareness and willingness to find a participatory solution that is feasible and sustainable. There was a time when the conventional view was that droughts are natural calamities and are God's way of punishing the sinners. They were either to be endured or to be escaped by moving away to somewhere where there was water. This was fine as long as one was a nomad and could move from one place to another, and there were no international borders. What most people these days do, however, is to the contrary. They opt to settle down in one place. Go to the same place to work everyday. Their children go to schools that stay in one place. Their offices stay in the same buildings, and their agricultural lands do not sprout feet overnight and take a walk around the country.

Pakistan's economy relies heavily on agriculture. Agriculture accounts for a major portion of the national product. It is a major source of raw material to the industry and also of foreign exchange. According to the latest Economic Survey by the Government of Pakistan, agriculture contributes 25 percent of the GDP and employs 44 percent of the workforce. Water shortages affect agriculture in a way that not only food security is threatened, especially in arid and semiarid areas where irrigation is the main source of water, but also employment and industry. On a global level, growth in food supplies in recent years has been attributed to increase in irrigation. There have been examples from other parts of the world, where technology has been used to desalinate water for municipal and industrial usage in coastal areas. The costs are quite high for agriculture purposes, and beyond our country's capacity.

Unlike most developing countries of the world, where according to latest estimates 70 to 80 percent of fresh water resources are used for agriculture purposes, Pakistan consumes up to 98 percent of its fresh water resources for agriculture. This trend of water consumption in Pakistan, over the last ten years, has been on the rise. From using 37 percent of the water available, we have now almost doubled this quantity by using almost 62 percent. This increase can be attributed to rising demands of a growing population, The true reason is, however, sadder than that. Pakistan may boast one of the best irrigation system in the world, but experts say that the water losses from our irrigation system are the highest in the world.

Pakistan, like other developing countries, is a country where more and more people are moving to cities with a hope to find a better life. Twenty-five years ago less than 40 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas. 25 years from now, more than 60 percent will be living in large cities. These cities need water for municipal and industrial purposes. If we only consider the case of Karachi, we will find that a large number of private water providers are supplying water to houses. The water that is supplied by the public provider is of poor quality and not enough to meet the needs of city. Islamabad may be considered as a model city where people think it rains most of the time, but there also one can find homeowners installing hand pumps. Statistical facts may give numbers that are either incomprehensible or debatable, but these day to day examples sometimes provide a better picture of the enormity of a problem.

Many governments have come and gone over the last twenty years. None of them stayed long enough to resolve any of the major problems. The leaders held rallies, people chanted slogans, but nothing was actually done. The reasons behind this failure include reluctance on the part of the institutions and the communities to treat water as an economic product. There is also an excessive reliance on inefficient institutions for water and water services, fragmented management of water between sectors and institutions, and inadequate recognition of the health and environmental concerns associated with current practices. The government has recently initiated a debate on building the Kalabagh dam, which may seem to some as the ultimate solution for the water problems of this country. But one must also realise that dams need to be maintained, and their capacity can very quickly decrease due to sedimentation. Without proper protection and management of natural resources, any new dam may not be the final solution of the problem.

Water scarcity is a problem that affects everyone and in all aspects of life. It is therefore of utmost importance that we should try to understand the problem in its entirety, its causes and full ramification of the solution that we may think are the correct measures. We may be right in constructing the Kalabagh dam, but it is time that we also asses how well we manage our water resources and whether we need to review the design of the Kalabagh dam before we embark on an expensive exercise that may not be right solution. What we need is a broad vision and along term view of the developmental needs of our country and the resources that we need to sustain growth. The solution may lie in increasing the number of dams, but it also lies in preventing crisis and regional disputes through measures that are economic and institutional. Water must be treated as an economic good, which is priced and taxed. Allocation and usage of water should defined according to clear laws and policies that are agreed to by all stakeholders. If infrastructure is to be built for improving storage and distribution of water, then this should be done through participation and joint agreements. Any measures that are taken to resolve this problem, should be co-operative arrangements. Awareness and participation are two key elements of sustainable development and they should also apply to finding a solution to the problem of water scarcity in Pakistan.

The Frontier Post 7/8/00