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Water economy

Water has become one of Pakistan’s top development and governance issue

Water economy
And now water security.

Water is a source of life for multiple sectors, especially agriculture, industry, energy, and transport. Investments in the water sector are needed to ensure water security, protecting the society from water-related risks, as well as supporting economic growth and social well-being.

But economic growth has its own pros and cons. On one hand, it can induce water scarcity, but on the other it can provide the resources needed to ensure water availability and address various water-related risks.

According to a recent research study titled four billion people facing severe water scarcity, two-thirds of the world’s population, approximately four billion people, live under conditions of severe water scarcity, for at least one month, each year. This crisis situation calls for the immediate need to address water security, in the face of climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, economic development and demographic change.

The growing challenge of water security is being faced beyond borders. Both Pakistan and India should be responsible for transboundary flow of water to ensure sustainable management of water, through legal bindings and efficient systems. Cooperation is much needed in transboundary water management for harnessing maximum benefits, rather than having a single hegemonic nation acting as a basin leader and pursuing its own interests unilaterally. Transboundary water conflicts can be averted, and benefits and efficiency maximised by employing principles of hydro-diplomacy, equity, trust building, and cooperation for mutual benefits.

Various water-related issues such as floods, droughts, inaccessibility to clean drinking water, and resource degradation hamper development, as population and economic growth exert greater pressure on water resources. Climate change has further exacerbated water-related risks as water availability becomes unpredictable and extreme weather events become frequent.

Deteriorating water quality and contaminated water has resulted in unprecedented increase in water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, which caused 1.4 million premature deaths worldwide in 2010. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global losses due to inadequate water supply and sanitation are USD 260 billion, annually.

Furthermore, excessive pumping of groundwater is deteriorating the quantity and quality of water. Its accessibility and on-demand availability is a vital component in our integrated water resource planning and management.

Decreasing precipitation, changing patterns of rainfall, variable water flow in the rivers and frequent occurrences of droughts have led to more and more reliance on precious groundwater resources. Also, the amount of water abstracted from aquifers is not adequately recharged through natural or artificial means, resulting in water depletion, declining water tables, decreasing and costly agricultural growth and various diseases.

The urban use of groundwater is plagued with over-abstraction and contamination. The groundwater economy in many countries of the world, including the Indus Basin of Pakistan, is over-abstracted due to inefficient institutional and regulatory framework for managing this significant resource. This may lead to interstate and intrastate conflicts on its sharing. This needs a serious and sincere debate about whether to pump its aquifers to the maximum and face the consequences or being proactive in order to better manage abstraction and invest in groundwater recharge.

Pakistan, one of the top ten water insecure countries of the world, seriously needs to address water insecurity. Policies and infrastructure investments are needed to allocate water between alternative uses, to deliver water at specific times, places and to ensure water quality.

Globalisation can help mitigate local water-related challenges through food trade, financial risk management tools, foreign direct investment and cooperative disaster warning and response mechanisms. Water-related investments are much needed in every country to address water insecurity in order to enhance economic productivity and growth.

Being an agrarian economy, Pakistan is grappling to ensure food and energy security. Since 96 per cent of available freshwater is utilised by the agriculture sector, any move to encroach on Pakistan’s water rights and seasonal availability can affect its economic growth, and become an issue of national security.

Over the past few years, Pakistan has been heavily exposed to climate-driven losses, exerting a heavy strain on the economy and driving millions of people, especially farmers, to poverty.

Recently, German Watch, a German think-tank, launched its Global Climate Risk Index 2016, highlighting the top climate vulnerable countries. According to its Climate Risk Index for 2014: the 10 most affected countries, Pakistan was ranked fifth among the countries most affected by climate change. Pakistan continued to consecutively appear in the past four years’ list of most affected countries. The report also states that Pakistan suffered economic loss of more than USD 2 billion due to extreme weather events in 2014.

Another study Securing Water, Sustaining Growth, led by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Task Force on Water Security and Sustainability Growth, ranked Pakistan second after China in the water shortage index. This finding highlights that Pakistan’s population is at risk of frequent water shortages. Moreover, in the flood index, Pakistan stands at number seven. Pakistan ranks number five according to the water and sanitation index of the report.

According to Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, CEO Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan, a think-tank, “Water has become Pakistan’s number one development and governance issue. Our per capita water availability has diminished to nearly 1,000 cubic metres due to growing population. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif needs to set the direction for Pakistan’s water economy as water is critically needed to fuel our economy and create water jobs.”

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh further said LEAD Pakistan, through its Water Programme, is organising an international water conference in Islamabad on July 19-20, 2016, titled Water Sustainability: Access, Equity & Hazards (For more information about the conference: http://www.lead.org.pk/wsc/) which aims to address water sustainability through the lens of Access, Equity and Hazards. “Through this conference, regional and international researchers will be brought together to discuss groundwater management, water-related disasters, transboundary water challenges, water governance, urban water management and ways technology can address Pakistan’s water sustainability challenge,” said Ali Tauqeer.

Dr. Zaigham Habib, a policy and planning consultant, hydrologist and researcher, who was also a member of Planning Commission’s task force on climate change said, “Since the gross national renewable water resources can’t be increased, it’s important to keep in mind that Pakistan’s economy is highly water sensitive. According to global projections, Pakistan’s water-related risks are highly linked with floods and droughts.”

In order to deal with existing water challenges, Dr. Zaigham said, “At the national level, Pakistan must increase its productivity from available water, minimise water losses in the saline areas, boost hydropower potential of the existing dams and infrastructures, and shift use of water from three summer months to the winter.”

Today, when water scarcity is judged through per capita availability, most people have forgotten that it’s not the only parameter, as it’s a measure based on averages. Most importantly, key issues, such as who gets water and who controls it, should be addressed by the policy-makers in future water planning and allocation decisions.

The agriculture sector of Pakistan, which consumes most water, needs to be sustainable in Pakistan. It’s important to introduce water efficient crop varieties, as water demand from sectors, such as urban, energy and industry etc. is increasing. Moreover, inefficient management of water usage in agriculture is leading to issues, such as waterlogging and salinity, which needs to be minimised.

Rafay Alam, member of the Punjab Environment Protection Council, referred to a survey of water perceptions carried out in Pakistan, two years ago. The survey concluded that:

1) Pakistan is already in a water crisis;

2) There is absolutely no role of women in development or implementation of the water policy.

Rafay Alam further added, “Pakistan’s water experts pre-dominantly are retired hydrologists from the public sector. They believe water is something that can be piped and taxed. Nothing more nothing less. For them: more dams. Not a word on equity. Not a word on climate challenges. Not a word on gender mainstreaming.”

The government should introduce a mechanism of water pricing commensurate with users’ willingness and ability to pay, and also the value of water used. It’s only through water pricing that revenue for maintenance of water infrastructure and investments to develop water resources can be increased.

Water pricing can also be used as a mechanism to allocate water, where water can be provided to those areas, which are willing to pay for it. Whereas, it should be subsidised for the less privileged communities, who live below the poverty line, and may find it difficult to pay the water bills.

It’s high time to price and put a value on the most important resource, which has the power to fuel economic growth, and steer the country towards sustainable development. The government should give immediate attention to the transboundary water and groundwater issues of Pakistan and also address them in its future water policy. The water discourse should be expanded beyond technical stakeholders to ensure access and equity.

Syed Muhammad Abubakar

The writer is an environmental journalist. He Tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via [email protected]

One comment

  • Quite an interesting read. Water pricing seems to be a convenient solution and also quite a mainstream narrative worldwide for dealing with water issues. Needless to say, it serves the agenda of organization like Nestle, CocaCola etc. However, one needs to take into account several governance issues in countries like Pakistan where corruption is rampant and the divide between the rich and poor is exponentially increasing. Water governance related issues come attached with several other issues related to agriculture, poverty, climate change (like Raafay mentioned) which need to be addressed in conjunction with water governance/management. Most importantly, this is an problem that cannot be solved with a top-down policy approach, the solutions need to be localized with relevant stakeholders involved.

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