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Managing water resources in Pakistan

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By Syed Mohammad Ali

The alternative water sources of poor residents of slums and rural areas are often polluted rivers, lakes and shallow hand-dug wells. Still, middle class consumers, rather than the poor, enjoy subsidised water rates

Despite its essential need, fresh water availability is frighteningly limited. Over a billion people, mostly in developing countries, do not have adequate water supplies. Pakistan, too, is classed as a water-stressed nation in view of the average water availability of its population. Experts gathered some months ago in Islamabad, on the occasion of World Water Day, thought that unless the water resources are better managed Pakistan would slip below the water deficiency level — 1,000 cubic metres per person, per annum — in five years.

The problem of increasing water scarcity in Pakistan is multifaceted. Unlike most developing countries of the world, where 70 to 80 percent of fresh water resources are diverted for agricultural purposes, agriculture in Pakistan uses well over 95 percent of the fresh water resources. While some argue that the pressure to feed the growing population and increase exports is responsible for the large proportion of the country’s water resources being allocated to agriculture, others point to the high losses in the sprawling irrigation system. Rapid and unsustainable development, too, has polluted and disturbed some major watersheds and river plains, in turn disrupting natural hydrological cycles.

Yet the incapacity to provide adequate water services remains evident amongst many rural and the ever-mushrooming municipal centres. The government clearly needs to do much more to extend provision of safe drinking water and sanitation services, which are vital to ensuring both health and productivity.

International development agencies also need to promote decisions for the sustainable management of water resources, instead of treating water primarily as an economic commodity. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are criticised in particular for having encouraged the commoditisation of water across the developing world. Improving water management practices and extending access to clean water to the poor remain main pillars of World Bank and ADB water policies, but the reforms suggested by them do little to address this problem head on.

The World Bank blames public sector providers for massive leaks and theft, due to which they fail to meet demands of a majority of their consumers. As a solution, the Bank recommends instituting higher water rates to give private companies an incentive to extend piped water service to more people. >From an economic perspective, it makes sense that those who can afford the cost of purchasing water, and of putting it to optimal use, should be given priority over those with meagre purchasing power and low productive capacity. This argument impels the ADB to advocate that low value water users trade their rights to high value water users, in order to increase the monetary assets of low end users as well as the overall productivity of water use. This argument ignores the fact that water is also a common good and equitable access to it is a basic human right.

Structural adjustment loans to developing countries have routinely focused on privatisation and increased cost recovery, as the means to improve water provision services. Such policy advice has been given not only to Pakistan but also to Indonesia, Philippines, Bolivia, Ghana, and Argentina. Implementation of this market-oriented paradigm for water management can however exacerbate access inequalities between rich and poor, between the industrial and agricultural sector, and between urban and rural areas.

Pakistan’s water resource management strategy is heavily influenced by the market-based logic. It is accepted that a majority of poor villages and urban slums in the country still lack piped water systems. There is also a realisation that the alternative water sources of poor residents of such areas are often polluted rivers, lakes and shallow hand-dug wells. Middle class consumers, rather than the poor, enjoy subsidised water rates. Thus the argument is built for removal of water subsidies, which are viewed as a burden preventing the public sector from investing in expansion of the water infrastructure to reach the poor. Public sector losses are also seen being passed onto the poor due to regressive taxation systems. Instead of focusing directly on better addressing unmet water needs of the poor however, trust is placed in instituting water charges and in involving the private sector for ensuring effective and equitable access to water.

Even specialised bodies, like the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, have confined views concerning how to deal with water related problems. Take for example the issue of drought mitigation. While management of surface- and ground-water for mitigation of drought receives much attention, innovative and sustainable strategies like rainwater harvesting remain largely ignored. Desalination and recycling maybe expensive and high-tech, but collecting rain water for crop production, range improvement, livestock and human consumption in otherwise non-productive areas is not so difficult. A range of means are available for doing so, and are in evident use in countries as diverse as the USA, China, Australia, Mexico, Israel, Syria and Turkey. But Pakistan has yet to commence a serious initiative in this regard, despite the fact that annual rainfall averages indicate potential for water harvesting and run-off agriculture in the country. Keeping in view the increasing population and declining water resource base of the country, our policy makers and planners should give serious consideration to such possibilities. The government of neighbouring India has begun issuing directives to its state and municipal bodies, through its five-year plans, to undertake rooftop rainwater harvesting, and its recycling for domestic purposes and for using this water to recharge groundwater reserves. Yet in Pakistan, even in cities like Karachi, Lahore, Rawapindi and Islamabad, which face serious water shortages, no such attempt is visible. Instead of relying on the commoditisation of water alone, more emphasis must be placed on alternative solutions to conserve, better utilise and distribute more equitably our water resources.

The author is a development consultant and an international fellow of the Open Society Institutes network. He can be reached at syedmohdali555@yahoo.com