Experts say future water scarcity threatens Pakistan

By Ihsan Qadir  |  Sept. 13, 2013 at 12:53 PM
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LAHORE, Pakistan, Sept. 13 (UPI Next) --

Despite abundant water resources and heavy monsoon rains in four consecutive years, experts say Pakistan will face an acute water shortage in the not-too-distant future, disrupting lives and potentially leading to war with India.

Summer floods left more than 178 dead, yet Pakistan has few dams to capture rainwater, and millions of gallons run out to sea each year. Consequently, many Pakistanis have no access to clean drinking water, and farmers lack irrigation water. Agriculture, the backbone of the economy, depends on rivers flowing from India.

Another issue is pollution. On Aug. 19, the government informed the National Assembly that more than 80 percent of water samples collected across the country were found unsafe for drinking. It asked provincial governments to take measures against the increasing contamination.

Salman Yousaf, deputy secretary of housing, urban development and public health engineering in Punjab province, cited excessive groundwater pumping and low amounts of water flowing through river basins as issues. In addition, he pointed to weak regulation, lack of such demand-management tools as consumer meters and "highly inappropriate tariffs” in the province.

Other problems he cited included untreated wastes and old water and sewage pipes.

An April Asian Development Bank report called Pakistan "one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, not far from being classified as 'water scarce,' with less than 1,000 cubic meters per person per year."

The country's storage capacity is equivalent to only a 30-day supply, compared with the recommended 1,000 days for countries with similar climates, the report said.

A shortage of potable water is already a serious issue in Karachi, where millions of residents have no clean drinking water and must rely on contaminated water from tankers, the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board says.

"In Lahore, groundwater pollution -- which causes typhoid, cholera, dysentery and hepatitis -- is a major issue because of fertilizer, pesticides and industrial discharge. The local government is planning to create a lake there to recharge groundwater," Iqtidar Shah, deputy managing director of the Water and Sanitation Authority in Lahore, told UPI Next.

"The scarcity of clean water may hit Lahore hard like Karachi," Shah said.

"There is more pumping but no dumping of water, plus water pollution. The water level is decreasing constantly every year.”

Gen. Farooq Hameed Sheikh, director of Punjab's Environment Protection Department, said water scarcity means compromising on water quality as well as quantity.

"The biggest issue we are confronting right now is groundwater pollution," he told UPI Next.

"The negligence of successive governments resulted in contamination of water in the River Ravi in Lahore. The entire human waste of Lahore has been poured into it. It has become the most polluted river of the world. It is now badly affecting groundwater in the Lahore City."

Most experts interviewed blame poor management for the crisis.

"Poor management, waste, Indian aggression and lack of storage facilities have resulted in scarcity of fresh water supply to the citizens," Munawar Sabir, a Punjab University geography professor, said.

"Our agricultural input has decreased; annual floods have become routine, and in 2013 alone, more than 178 people have been killed. The infant mortality rate is high because of contaminated water."

Sabir noted Pakistan and neighboring India have the world's highest annual population increases.

"Water resources of both countries are eventually sharply depleting, amounting to dangerous levels," he said

Many of Pakistan's rivers pass through India first, giving India control over their flow, and water has been an issue between the two countries in the past -- leading some to point to the possibility of a future war over water.

However, Shamsul Mulk, former chairman of Pakistan's Water and Power Development Authority, said India should not be blamed directly for Pakistan's water crisis, and he lambasted previous governments for not taking the water issue seriously.

"Pakistan has acted like an absentee landlord vis-a-vis water reserves," he said.

He said the country built only two major dams in the last 40 years, which are facing sedimentation.

"It is our mismanagement and criminal negligence of our successive governments which would lead us towards starvation and draughts and war with India," Mulk said.

In comparison, he said, China has constructed 22,000 dams and India 4,000.

Mulk said the solution to Pakistan's water woes lies in construction of large dams and better planning. In 2010 and 2011 alone, he said, nearly 18 million gallons of water ran out to sea.

By 2025, Pakistan will be on the brink of the shortage, with 33 percent less water than it needs, reports by the World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan project. The exploding population, unplanned urbanization, irrational policies, dumping of wastes, lax law enforcement and loose governance have hurt groundwater quality and quantity, the reports said.

WWF-Pakistan has recommended that Pakistan revise provincial water allocation and harmonize water availability with provinces' farming.

"There is no groundwater recharge scheme in Pakistan due to our ill-planning," said Muhammad Javed, an expert on soil science and groundwater for the Punjab Irrigation Department.

"There are 1 million tube wells in Punjab alone, but there is no planning and regulation for farmers vis-a-vis water usage. Factories are also polluting our groundwater, and sweet pockets of waters are being contaminated. This situation, if it continues, may bring a disaster of high magnitude in Pakistan. The same treatment is being meted out to surface water."

Akmal Hussain, an economics professor at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, told UPI Next that water should be the government's top priority and the current government should not repeat the mistake of not taking water issues seriously.

"First, we should realize that water is a lifeline for Pakistan," he said. "We should increase efficiency of irrigation by sustainable agriculture practices and advanced technologies. Water sense should be increased among citizens.

"Then, we should hold meaningful dialogue with India over water because agriculture is [the] backbone of our economy, which is heavily dependent on water flow from India. Otherwise, if this issue persists, no one can stop war with India.”

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