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Critical Issues in Water Economy Dr. Atteeq-Ur-Rehman Maqbool

Critical Issues in Water Economy | Dr. Atteeq-Ur-Rehman Maqbool

EXPERTS anticipate that water levels in Pakistan, whose economy is based primarily on agriculture, will decline further, making the country ‘water scarce’ from ‘water stressed’ currently. The per capita availability of water decreased over 400pc, from 5,260 cubic metres in 1951 to roughly 1,040 metres in 2010.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation measures the pressure on national water resources by calculating water withdrawal as a percentage of total renewable water resources (TRWR). The stresses are considered high if the pressure on the TRWR is above 25pc.

Pakistan’s water pressure amounts to an astounding 74pc. This is alarming even when compared with neighbouring high-pressured countries like India (34pc) and Afghanistan (31pc). Pakistan is expected to become water scarce — or have less than 500 cubic metres per capita per year — by 2035, with some analysts predicting 2020.

An analysis of the country’s water economy reveals some interesting and critical aspects. For instance, Pakistan is one of the world’s most arid countries with an average rainfall of under 240mm a year. The country’s dependence on a single river system makes its water economy highly scary.

Much of Pakistan’s water infrastructure is poor and lacks modern asset-management planning

The Indus river system draws its water from rainfall in neighbouring countries and the melting of snow in the Himalayas.

The country’s water resources are being degraded on a large scale by salinity, pollution and overexploitation. In addition, tens of thousands of additional wells are being sunk into the existing groundwater aquifers. Climate change is causing the glaciers of the western Himalayas to melt and retreat. This is more likely to trigger devastating floods over the next decades.

Moreover, when glacier reservoirs get empty due to negative glacial budget, the river flows will be dramatically decreased.

Available data suggest that the country’s population will reach 230m by 2025. This implies that the agricultural sector will have to grow more than 4pc annually to meet the food requirements of the augmented population. This requires prudent water usage and resource management.

Delaying efforts to address the situation will only intensify the disputes between water stakeholders, and lead to economic vulnerabilities, civil unrest and political fragility.

The major challenges to effective water management are the rising water needs due to a rapidly growing population, lack of resource management and policy approach, governance and political issues, climate change, and natural disasters. Much of Pakistan’s water infrastructure is poor and lacks modern asset-management planning.

As a result, the projects suffer from inefficiencies, poor infrastructural maintenance services, completion delays, and cost overruns. And the connection between energy and water has become an aggravating factor in provincial disputes.

Meanwhile, water contamination due to industrial waste is also a critical issue. Around 90pc of industrial and municipal waste, which is generally untreated and highly toxic, is dumped into open drains and then infiltrates into groundwater aquifers.

The storage capacity of the Indus basin irrigation system, which commands 34m acres for irrigation, is only about 121 million acre feet (MAF) per capita per year. The existing dams are rapidly silting, with Mangla and Tarbela losing about 25pc of their designed capacity.

Furthermore, water losses from within watercourses and between canal heads amount to about one-third of the total amount of delivered water; an additional 25pc is lost within farms. Pakistan currently uses 97pc of its allocated water resources to support one of the lowest productivities in the world in terms of per unit of water.

It has been estimated that simply repairing and maintaining the existing canal systems could free an estimated 76MAF of water.

Surface water storage can provide undeniable energy generation benefits as the industrial sector is facing a critical electricity shortage. In addition, groundwater storage could help meet water demands for other purposes. More than 40pc of the population does not have access to clean water in the country.

Some suggestions are given below that might be food for thought for the country’s water management. Knowledge-based indigenous capacity and institutions should be built that would provide scientific, technical and policy support for water management.

Companies should be involved in developing information systems to detect and monitor water use along the entire length of a city’s distribution system. Wastewater should be transformed into new sources of energy or fertiliser; this would eliminate the waste stream in the process.

More sophisticated water utilisation and management technologies should be adopted to optimise usage and enhance sustainability.

A state-of-the-art disaster management department should be established that could manage a countrywide alert system and coordinate emergency response teams to cope with disastrous situations.

Investment needs to be made in constructing large dams to enhance the water storage capacity to match supply with demand. Water reservoir de-silting projects should also be executed for the existing dams. In the future, the de-silting plans must be integral to the designs of the dams for maintaining their storage capacity.

Lastly, national awareness about water scarcity needs to be created to encourage responsible use of the resource. There is a dire need for an efficient ‘national water management programme’ to overcome the challenge of water scarcity.


Published in Dawn, Economic & Business, August 24th, 2015

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