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Pakistan's water-borne complications


By M. Ismail Khan
The writer is an Islamabad-based consultant and analyst

In the last few weeks, scores of people including children have died of gastroenteritis in various parts of Punjab and Sindh. Many more are battling for life in crowded hospitals. These fatalities occurred due to drinking the wrong type of water that is supplied through pipelines to a large number of consumers. The consumers are deprived of the right kind of water, which means water fit to drink or 'potable water', which is a scarce resource in Pakistan, as well as in the world. It is a fact that has been creeping on us, and now has taken a dangerous turn, with causalities piling up. Like elsewhere, water as a resource is taken for granted in Pakistan, because every rain, every snowfall, indeed every twist of the tap, brings an illusion of abundance. In reality drinkable water is depleting both in terms of quantity and quality. Globally, there are two strands of opinion on fresh water availability. One group of scientist believe that fresh water is not only limited, it is a finite resource. They cite basic facts that about 70 per cent of earth surface is water, but m ore than 97 per cent of that water is salty sea water unfit for drinking or irrigation, of the remaining 2.53 per cent, more then three quarter is frozen in the polar regions and glaciers.

Thus, only less then one per cent of the planet's water is fresh, and since about more then half of these are buried deep down underground aquifers, less then half of the one per cent is actually available for human consumption in rivers, lakes and streams. The other strand of experts considers fresh water as a limitless resource, as it is always there in gas form hovering between the earth's atmosphere and its surface. What falls from the sky either runs off the surface, frozen as ice and snow, or absorbed by the ground through plants which continuously re-charges aquifers.

Whatever may be the reasoning, one thing is clear that the rate at which the population is growing and water needs are spiralling up, fresh water sources are not getting replenished at the same rate. Another thing making the concerned people lazy about water is the assumption that building dams, melting glaciers and desalinating the ocean can tackle the deficit. An argument which does not hold much water, given the erratic climate change patterns, and the difficulties faced by governments in developing countries to incur cost of desalination and waste treatment technologies.

So, it is basically not just a quantity issue, but increasingly poor quality of drinking water is contributing to scarcity as well as health problems. According to the WHO and UNICEF, contaminated water and water related diseases cause about four million deaths and 30 million cases of illnesses every year. Pakistan is lucky to have a large collection of glaciers, and for being fed by an array of mountainous watersheds, monsoon system, and underground aquifers.

Yet, day-by-day we are running short of 'drinkable' water. Pakistan's per capita availability of water has dropped from 5,600 cubic metres in 1947 to 1,200 cubic metres in 2005. It may hit the threshold level of 1,000 cubic metres per person somewhere in 2007. In this background, budgetary pronouncement made for building storage dams, up-gradation of watercourses, and promotion of sprinkle irrigation technologies seems inadequate to meet the challenge.

Moreover, access to 'drinkable water' is a different matter. The pledge in the budget about establishment of water purification plants, which is a welcome but not so practical solution, as the factors that affect access to potable water, is vast and complex. Purification or filtration facility at district or tehsil level is not going to resolve the drinkable water crises in such a diverse demographic and geographic landscape. Besides, past experience proves that such structure becomes public liability due to absence of appropriate up keeping capacity.

The provision of potable water in Pakistan is primarily a distributional and management issue. But before discussing possible remedies, let us look at some of the underlying aspects of the ongoing water-borne crises. Water related illnesses such as gastroenteritis, kidney failure, and stomach and liver ailments, dysentery, prolonged diarrhoea, jaundice, cholera and typhoid have assumed alarming proportions in recent years.

The baby boom and a massive rural to urban migration, which continues, have aggravated the situation. Investment needed to facilitate such a demographic shift in terms of water and sanitation infrastructure is lacking. Leakages of aging pipelines, illegal perforation for connections and the resultant mix up of pipelines with sewage lines are some of the well-known hazards.

Many experts attribute outbreaks of water-borne illnesses to contaminants in poorly managed water supply systems administered by municipal corporations and the water and sanitation departments. Industrial and manufacturing sectors are the traditional culprits in cities like Faisalabad and Karachi, where industrial waste containing poisonous compounds is reportedly discharged in the waterways. Agriculture, once a clean sector, is becoming a spoiler. Excessive use of nitrate in agricultural fertilisers has become a major threat to water quality.

Most people who do not have access to potable drinking water are poor and lack influence to catalyse forceful action against polluters. A large number of people living in rural areas do not have tap water, they still rely on nearby rivers, wells, and even rain fed ponds to fetch water for domestic use and for drinking, sources more vulnerable to degradation. On the other hand, more and more middle, even lower middle class families are turning to bottled water, an industry lately growing with leaps and bounds.

Ideally, water management decisions should not be relegated to a single organisation, as potable water is an issue of concern for every individual. There is a need to develop management and monitoring mechanisms involving user chains. This will help minimising water pollution at the source. The government should take series of simultaneous measures to mobilise public involvement in protecting drinking water resources.

It is important to find out and analyse causes of degradation of drinking water resources at the source level. There is need to develop a joint front involving users, service providers, decision makers and environmental protection agencies about water pollution resulting from irresponsible spilling of industrial waste, reckless use of pesticide, and other actions.

While the government builds and expands safer water supply and treatment systems, certain basic strategies and packages of incentives, as well as penalties should be immediately drawn to ensure compliance from polluters. The policies will only work if the polluter is made to pay.

Email: ismail.k2@gmail.com