Pakistan’s Water Crisis: Why a National Water Policy is Needed
November 1, 2017
By Brayshna Kundi
Recently, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) delivered a grave warning: if the government does not take action, the country will run out of water by 2025. Severe water scarcity is already having a negative impact on the country’s public health and the economy. Over 80 percent of water supplied is considered unsafe, and water scarcity and water-borne diseases are resulting in a loss of up to 1.44 percent of GDP. A number of standalone initiatives are underway to mitigate this impact; what else is needed now is a coordinated national policy on water.
Approximately 95 percent of Pakistan’s water is used for agriculture, with 60 percent of its population directly involved in agriculture and livestock, and 80 percent of exports based on these sectors. Despite having the world’s largest glaciers, Pakistan is among the world’s 36 most water-stressed countries. As the population rapidly increases, water demand is projected to far outstrip supply. As this happens—coupled with strained relations with the country’s neighbors over transboundary water resources—the water crisis is posing a threat to the country’s future security, stability, and sustainability. Immediate coordinated planning and implementation is required to avert disaster.
Goal six of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, water use efficiency, and integrated water resources management. In line with the SDGs, Pakistan’s vision 2025 addresses the issues of water security and aims for increasing water storage capacity, improving agricultural efficiency by 20 percent, and ensuring the availability of clean drinking water to all Pakistanis.
Greater investment in Pakistan’s water sector represents the best option for sustainable social and economic development and to ensure that no one is left behind in the process of development. Pakistan needs a sound national water policy which delineates the framework for balanced socio-economic development, management, and conservation of the country’s water resources in an environment challenged by climate change. Attempts over the years to update and approve a national water policy have failed due to lack of priority and consensus among federating units, and the approval of the 2002 draft national water policy has been delayed for a decade and a half.
The Asia Foundation is supporting a local organization Hisaar Foundation to develop a series of recommendations to guide the framework of a national water policy. The five main focus areas of the recommendations are: improving access to water for the poor and landless; financing the urban and rural water value chain; safeguarding the Indus Basin and its infrastructure; improving water institutions and their management and governance; and building a base for science, technology, and social aspects of water.
At a recent conference on water policy organized by the Hisaar Foundation and The Asia Foundation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, participants from the public and private sector discussed recommendations regarding where the country’s water policy and its implementation need to focus, with specific strategies for a provincial water policy.
Highlights include: calling on the political leadership to actively take up the water cause, improving agricultural water use efficiency, maintaining and upgrading existing water infrastructure, expanding the irrigation network to semi-arid and arid districts in order to utilize arable land, depoliticizing water management, raising community awareness about water conservation and water rights, improving transboundary communication, and bringing the private sector and institutes of higher learning into the water discourse.
If prioritized, water can serve as the engine of economic growth and regional trade expansion. With agriculture being Pakistan’s major sector (constituting 20% of GDP) and largest water consumer, it is estimated that even if a billion-dollar output is achieved for every million acre-feet of water utilized for agriculture, the water economy has the potential to increase total annual agricultural GDP to $200 billion from its current $50 billion.
Similarly, the country has exploited only 6,500 megawatts of hydro energy generation capacity of the Indus river system which stands at a potential of generating 59,000 megawatts. To realize the potential of the country’s “water economy,” a paradigm shift in reframing the national water policy and management is required at national level where all stakeholders are engaged and demand side measures are emphasized that promote conservation, water use efficiency, and controls excessive groundwater exploitation.
Pakistan needs to employ smarter and less water-intensive practices. The country has seen its fair share of supply-side measures such as building mega hydro projects and dams. The focus of the future reforms however should be on improving water use efficiency especially in the agriculture sector which continues to be the largest consumer of water while escaping taxation (or lightly taxed at the provincial level).
Apart from bringing the agriculture sector under the tax umbrella, there is a need to reform water tariffs and cost recovery. Canal water is heavily undervalued and the cost of recovery is poor— only 24 percent of the annual operation and maintenance cost is recovered—leading to water use inefficiencies and a financially unsustainable irrigation system. Moreover, the uniform pricing structure of major crops does not reflect their different water consumption rates. Reforming tariffs to represent their true value, therefore, will not only increase efficiency but will also generate revenue to maintain the water infrastructure, thereby reducing system leakages. Similarly, inadequate urban water tariffs have affected drinking water quality and there is a need to revise urban utilities to promote conservation and efficient water use.
Besides pricing incentives, maintaining infrastructure and innovation have an important role to play in water management and conservation. Maintaining infrastructure, especially in the agricultural sector, can reduce water loss significantly (two-thirds of irrigation water is lost due to system leakages) while practices such as crop zoning and innovative technologies like direct seeding drip irrigation should be encouraged and emphasized which increase agriculture water-use efficiency. Innovative methods in water conservation, recycling, wastewater management, water treatment, and rain water harvesting should become realities in cities and towns. However, care should be taken in making innovative practices cost effective and accessible.
Greater engagement of multiple stakeholders is required at the local level in water management and the capacity-building of local institutions. Campaigns aimed at increasing awareness and behavioral change should represent an essential part of the government’s water policy. Women have been identified to be important change makers in areas of conservation efforts; therefore, women should be engaged at every level. Most importantly, equity needs to enter the policy discourse so that measures introduced are not at the expense of the marginalized and the poor. Lastly, the private sector should be brought into the public policy discourse over water management. Banks should be encouraged to develop products to meet the gaps in financing for water projects. The State Bank of Pakistan’s recent Green Banking Guidelines for financial institutions is a step in the right direction.
Pakistan aspires to become one of the 10 largest economies in the world by 2047. Given the importance of water to Pakistan’s economy, getting water resource management right will be essential to realizing this goal. Water issues need to be resolved expediently for the sake of peace and prosperity in the country. We owe this to our future generations.
Brayshna Kundi is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Pakistan. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.