The perennial jostling at the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) is an indication of the country’s constrained water resources. Although termed ‘renewable’, in reality water replenishment comes with severe limits. Barring Karachi and Hyderabad, the last monsoon rains in the country were 30 per cent below the average amount. No doubt, the vagaries of nature complicate water management. However, the progressively declining availability of water in Pakistan and our inaction over the years should be of equal concern.
According to the Planning and Development Division, between 1997 and 2005, overall water availability decreased from 1,299 to 1,101m3 (cubic metres) per capita; another study puts that figure closer to 1000m3. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Pakistan’s water availability places the country at the bottom of 26 Asian states; no wonder, then, that the country is increasingly being categorised as a ‘high stress’ country in terms of water.
Of the total surface area of the planet, nearly 71 per cent is comprised of water. Of this imposing segment, 97.5 per cent is saltwater, leaving 2.5 per cent as freshwater. Of this fraction, 70 per cent is frozen in icecaps while about 29 per cent lies in underground aquifers or as subsoil moisture. This leaves a minuscule one per cent freshwater for human consumption.
Awareness of that inadequacy is not all-encompassing. The majority of us live in reckless abandon, as if this diminishing commodity is actually in surfeit. According to one study, for example, the US uses 1.6 billion gallons of freshwater per day to flush its toilets — equivalent to 25 billion glasses of drinking water each day. This seems an indefensible disparity.
In terms of sector-wise contribution to Pakistan’s GDP, agriculture stands at 20.4 per cent, manufacturing at 26.6 per cent and the service sector at 53 per cent. Opposed to this, the ratio of water consumption is 96 per cent for agriculture, two per cent for the manufacturing sector and two per cent for domestic usage. As a world average, agriculture accounts for 69 per cent of all annual water withdrawals, industry for 23 per cent and domestic usage for eight per cent.
Yet the disparity in our matrix is not entirely surprising, given that Pakistan is overwhelmingly an arid country with an agriculture-dependent economy that employs over 45 per cent of the workforce. Unfortunately, intensive irrigation regimes and poor drainage practices have caused water-logging and soil salinity throughout Pakistan’s countryside.
As a result, vast expanses of rich agricultural land are too wet or salty to yield any meaningful harvest. Conversely, downstream Indus has shrunk to a canal, adversely affecting ecosystems.
For decades the world has enjoyed an abundance of high-quality freshwater that was inexpensive to obtain. With our communities facing increased shortages, we need to adopt modern ways of conserving our water assets. Through the media, we need to educate our populace about the impending water crisis and the significance of conservation, emphasising that reuse methodologies must be adopted by each city and town, and even at the level of individual units.
Similar awareness about the reuse of water has to be instilled in the industrial sector. In many other countries, the green movement has obligated the introduction of water-reuse practices in industries. We, too, must augment our resources through innovative rainwater harvesting, storm-water management, wastewater recycling and other efficient and sustainable systems.
Water use is subdivided into potable and non-potable irrigation, industry and groundwater recharge. Our society must be encouraged to use greywater for non-potable uses. Greywater is all wastewater except toilet washes, which is called blackwater.
The world’s climate patterns are changing, affecting every facet of society, ecosystems and economies. The wasteful use of water in agriculture deprives wetlands, streams, deltas, plants and animals of their share. As aquatic and terrestrial environments are damaged and ecosystems change; the strictest scrutiny of our principal water-user, the agriculture sector, must be exercised.
Pakistan uses flood irrigation, an archaic system, whereas other nations have progressed to alternate methods such as drip and sprinkler systems, to save on water. In the US and Europe, water-use for agriculture ranges between 40 and 50 per cent of their total resource.
Pakistan must formulate a decisive policy on automating its irrigation system. The task is gigantic, for it also requires re-educating farmers. It must therefore be done on an incremental basis, targeting selected land parcels for implementation and strict compliance.
The federal government needs to introduce ‘water credit’ available to those requiring financial assistance to equip their infrastructure. Grants are not the way to go, for these are at best limited in scope and tend to reach only the influential who usually squander it. Loans, on the other hand, show a perpetuating trend.
A scheme can also be employed, where water is supplied at a sliding rate commensurate with the incorporation of water-saving technologies: farmers and industries that use antiquated ways could pay higher water-charges than those conforming to the national policy. With such a focused approach, Pakistan would head towards aligning closely to world usage percentages. Even if we initially save only one per cent of water each year, this should have a snowball effect and we should fare well in the coming decades.
For any plan to succeed there must be a shared belief that the rising tide of recovery will raise every boat, not just some. Therefore, it is essential to involve all stakeholders whilst formulating a strategy. The recovery initiative has to comprise more than mere issuance of another policy: it has to be backed by political will, accountability and the commitment to change attitudes.
To a teeming segment of our population, the key to life is the provision of clean water. That so little has been done in this field is unfortunate. The numbers affected are not just statistics, they represent real people awaiting real action.