Water outlook of Pakistan is not promising and is facing various grave challenges. Pakistan has three main sources of water; rainfall, underground water, and river system. Rivers entering into Kashmir, Punjab and KPK provinces from India and Afghanistan merge into the Indus River at one point, which is why almost 90% of the population is concentrated around the rivers particularly around the Indus River and its doab areas. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Indus River is the life blood of Pakistan’s economy. Despite its importance; Pakistan is fast approaching to become an ‘absolute’ water scarce country (by 2025) from a water scarce and water poor country because of continuous drop in the water bed; less downpour and deforestation; and massive reduction in the river’s water flow. The volume of Indus system has dropped from 156.7 million acre feet (MAF) to 109 MAF in 2019 except having 157 MAF in 2010 because of the floods.
Continuous deforestation makes Pakistan a forest poor country; having a small area of approx. 4.4 million ha under forest that is hardly 5% of its total land. Due to continuous deforestation, we see less downpour; Pakistan ranks 144 in the world in terms of rainfall. Over 10,000 sq km of total area of Pakistan is covered with glaciers, which are fast melting and can completely disappear in 20 years. Mining of groundwater is occurring in many area; this mixes the saline water with the fresh groundwater thus contaminating the ground water. Less than 33% population in rural Punjab has tap water while rest are relying on the underground water and tube wells. Similarly, seepage of water from the farms further pollutes the groundwater by actually adding fertilizers, chemicals, and pesticides to the ground water. Siltation in reservoirs has significantly reduced the capacity of Tarbela and Mangla dams. These two dams were perceived in 60’s and since then only a few small dams were constructed while no tangible work was done on building of big reservoirs thus putting immense pressure on Tarbela and Mangla. Ironically, water storage capacity of Tarbela has reduced by almost 42% since its commissioning because of silting. An upstream dam could have saved these dams from this level of silting. Pakistan has an agrarian economy but annual yield is dropping year after year while it consumes 5 times more water than any other comparable country. Whereas main industries and exports (textile, sugar and rice) are directly linked with the agriculture sector, therefore, focus should be on bringing efficiency in the yield and water consumption in the agriculture sector.
With the mediation of the World Bank, ‘Indus Water Treaty’ was signed in 1960 between Pakistan and India, under which Pakistan was given the rights in perpetuity on the waters of the three western rivers (Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab) whereas other three eastern rivers (Beas, Sutlej and Ravi) were given to India. Over the time, we see mismatch between the location of Pakistan’s allocated western rivers and its major irrigation area in the east because India has diverted flow of most of the rivers and has also constructed a number of dams on the rivers, however, it releases water only when it has a flood like situation.
Pakistan not only needs water for its usage but also needs enough water to flow into the Arabian Sea for preventing intrusion into Indus delta region. ‘Indus delta’ is an area where Indus river merges with the Arabian sea, it is 5th largest delta system in the world and has 7th largest mangrove forest system with countless species of aquatic wildlife. Enough water is not being released thus Indus delta has shrunk by 92% since 1833 because of construction of various barrages and tributaries. Since 1947, sea water has claimed over 4.5 million acres of land from the delta with the displacement of more than 1.5 million people.
Provinces and federal government signed “Water Apportionment Accord” in 1991, under which Indus River System Authority (IRSA) releases water to the provinces for their consumption. Based on the historic usage of water, the 1991 Accord allocated 47%, 42%, 8%, 3% of available water to Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan respectively. Water allocation is a sensitive issue, which has made it almost impossible to build dams (Kalabagh Dam is an example) or divert water in an upstream province. Moreover, as population is heavily concentrated around the rivers thus making it difficult to build reservoirs close to the settled areas. Displacement of population becomes more of a political issue.
Mismanagement and lack of interest at the policy making level has taken us to this point. Water is a commodity now and it should be properly priced and billed as opposed to the current practice of charging nominal amounts. Inflow of sediment is a natural phenomenon and could not be prevented however, proper planning can help avoiding the Tarbela like situation. Construction of additional storage capacities with the consensus of the provinces can only address the water crisis. Federal government should form a commission comprising of experts and professionals for reviewing the water sector and identifying storage capacities of all sizes across the country. In the larger national interest, every province should come forward with an open mind. Moreover, federal government cannot do all this alone, therefore, private sector should also be involved in resolving the water crisis before it is too late.