Lahore’s Depleting Water Table
How to prevent taps from turning off
Either it is in abundance or there is an acute scarcity of it, “water” in both states leads to humanitarian crises. Its abundance in the form of floods leaves behind countless human tragedies while its scarcity makes life of the living organisms miserable. The history of Pakistan is replete with incidences of these two water-related disasters. Either floods or droughts, our country is, unfortunately, becoming a hotbed of these catastrophes and we now often witness these significant manifestations of climate change. Sometimes rivers receive so much water that they overflow their banks while at times they shrink so much that they look just like canals. Both these forms of natural disaster are, on the one hand, affecting our agriculture while our cities are growingly faced with shortage of drinking water, on the other. Lahore is also among the cities that are fast moving towards scarcity of potable water.
Owing to its key economic, social and financial activities, the city of Lahore is expanding in terms of both population and geography which is leading towards an increased pressure on natural resources while the curse of environmental degradation is also on the rise. This unbridled sprawl and degradation are, inter alia, limiting Lahore’s groundwater reserves that could lead to a crisis in the near future, if timely remedial measures are not taken. History calls us to learn lessons from it but we, probably, are not in a mood to do so. That is why Lahore, the population of which has more than doubled between 1998 and 2017, is being overburdened by more and more people. Lahore, which is the smallest district (area-wise) of Punjab province, is the most populous district of Pakistan. Although it covers only 0.22% of the country’s total area, it is home to around 5.35% of the country’s population – and 15% of the country’s urban population. The density of population in Lahore can be ascertained from the fact that, at present, the average population per square kilometer in Lahore district is 6275.39 – the highest ratio in the whole country. Moreover, Lahore district covers only 0.86% of the total area of Punjab province but it hosts 10% of the total population – and 27.5% of the urban population – of the province. Likewise, 27.5% of Punjab’s total urban houses are in Lahore while 10.27% of the total number of under-construction houses are also being built within its precincts. An increase of 100% has been recorded here during the period between the fifth and the sixth population and housing censuses, and this vividly reflects the geographical sprawl of the city.
One of the major reasons behind such a great population pressure is the migration of people towards Lahore. Water insecurity, climate change and economic inequality ignite rural-urban migration. This is depicted by the Pakistan Labour Force Survey 2014, which shows that 15% of migrants in Punjab migrate to Lahore. This growing number of people in the city means that there is essentially an increased demand for water required for daily needs. To meet this increasing demand, excessive pumping is being done due to which the water table of the central parts of the city has fallen by around 40 meters. And, it is estimated that it will further go down to 70 meters by 2025 and to 100 meters by 2040, if the situation is not addressed prudently. Extracting water from this depth will not be feasible, technically and financially, as the demand for water in Lahore district, by then, would be 2522 cusecs.
River Ravi, which is the principal reason behind the establishment of Lahore as it flows past it, served, historically, as the main source to meet the needs of city. The first modern drinking water supply system for the city was installed by the British in 1876. Under this system, water was transferred from the Ravi River to the Lakhpat Rai’s tank (popularly known as Paniwala Talab) that had a capacity of 250 cubic meters. However, with the passage of time, this facility was abandoned. In the past, due to the negligence of the city’s administration and an unfounded belief that the city would not face a shortage of groundwater due to the Ravi, no proper arrangements were made to supply surface water to the residents of Lahore for domestic use. But, later due to the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 by which Pakistan had to give up its right over Ravi’s waters proved the fallacy of this thinking. Over time, the steady decline in the flow of the Ravi made it impossible to divert water to meet the needs of the city. It resulted in a situation whereby all of the city’s water needs were being met by groundwater resources. On the other hand, the reduced amount of water in the river also affected the recharge of the water table. The situation has now reached the point where the groundwater level in Lahore is falling at a rate of one meter per annum due to the increased use of water. This alarming situation has also echoed in a report titled as “Pakistan Gaining More from Water,” published by the World Bank. The report says that the water table in Lahore, Quetta and some parts of South Punjab is falling rapidly.
The relationship between water and cities is very significant. They require a huge input of drinking water which inevitably impacts the water system. Due to the rapid sprawl, cities need additional water. To meet this demand, cities are digging deeper and deeper in search of water, thus exploiting more water resources. Falling groundwater levels in urban areas could be a precursor to a major humanitarian crisis because a large number of people, who have limited access to alternative sources of water, are affected by it. The expansion of cities promotes water insecurity which can lead to significant economic, social and political challenges for a country. Therefore, it is prudent to take precautionary measures before the onset of any kind of crisis. Two major water-related challenges affect the sustainability of urban settlements; first, lack of access to clean water and sanitation and second, increase in frequency of floods and droughts. These issues leave a negative impact on human health, well-being and safety, as well as on the environment, economic growth and development. Access to safe drinking water is essential to ensuring maximum social and political stability and equality in urban centers because people believe that, besides abundant employment opportunities, cities provide more efficient water management and reliable access to clean drinking water and sanitation. And this is the thinking that is causing the expansion and growth of cities in countries most affected by climate change.
Lahore is Pakistan’s second largest city in terms of population. The city is dependent entirely on groundwater resources to meet the water needs of its 11.1 million residents. At present, Water and Sanitation Agency (Wasa) is pumping around 2.45 million cubic meters of water daily through its 585 tube wells. In addition, there are 75 tube wells of Lahore Cantonment Board and 91 of Walton Cantonment Board which are supplying water to their respective areas. Along with these tube wells, the Defense Housing Authority, Model Town Society, Pakistan Railways colonies and a large number of private housing societies are supplying water to their concerned areas through private tube wells. In addition, 4611 tube wells, according to Punjab Development Statistics 2019 are extracting water also for agricultural purposes. These tube wells collectively were pumping 7.17 million cubic meters of water daily for domestic (53%), industrial (13%), institutional (10%) and agricultural (24%) uses, according to the WWF report ‘Situation Analysis of the Water Resources of Lahore’.
Per Lahore Master Plan 2040, due to population growth, city’s geographical size and over-pumping, Lahore’s groundwater reserves have been experiencing a sharp decline since the 1970s. Over the years, exclusive reliance on groundwater has lowered the city’s water level. Adding fuel to this fire is the increasing number of tube wells. As a result, many existing tube wells are becoming non-functional and the city is facing frequent water shortages. Therefore, a complete reliance on groundwater resources is not feasible for the future because groundwater availability is much higher than its recharge due to which the city’s current groundwater reserves are declining by 304 million cubic meters annually.
This bitter reality has been pointed out in Wasa’s October 2019 report ‘Environmental and Social Impact Assessment for Water Supply Infrastructure’. The main reason for this decline is the reduction in recharge from the Ravi River that often faces shortage of water flow. Under the Indus Waters Treaty, India has exclusive control over the waters of Ravi, and it has significantly reduced the flow of this river in Pakistan in recent years. Climate change, flawed irrigation practices and hydropower projects in India and the construction of Thein Dam (a.k.a. Ranjit Sagar Dam) in 2000 has greatly affected the hydrology of Ravi, which has significantly reduced groundwater recharge in and around Lahore.
The average flow of water in Ravi, which was 1300 million cubic meters per day between 1922 and 1961, decreased between 1985 and 1995 to 800 million cubic meters per day. From 2000 to 2009, it dropped further to 175 million cubic meters per day. The river is almost dry in the winter and spring seasons and it comes to life again, to some extent though, during monsoon, i.e. in July and August. Around 82% of the city’s groundwater recharge comes from Ravi while rainfall and canals recharge it by 12% and agricultural lands contribute 6% to that. So, the chances of further depletion of water table and the failure of tube wells have increased manifolds. But the story does not end here; another aspect of the situation that will have grave repercussions is the discharge of all the domestic and untreated industrial wastewater of Lahore – around 540 million gallons per day – into the Ravi. As a result, the river has turned into a sewage drain. Since the Ravi plays an important role in the recharge of Lahore’s water table, the contamination of its water due to the massive pollution is making the groundwater unfit for drinking.
Another source of recharge of Lahore’s water table is rainwater. The city receives an average of 715 mm of rainfall annually, which, according to experts, is sufficient to recharge its groundwater. However, it does not contribute much to the recharge of water table as the expansion of the city and related infrastructural development are also affecting the inflow of groundwater and most of the rainwater is wasted in the city, causing urban flooding. It is especially because the uncultivated lands in and around the city, which help in the recharge of the water table, are increasingly being covered with concrete as Lahore is sprawling at a fast pace. The Urban Unit Punjab’s ‘Urban Gazette’ of January 2018 says that the city of Lahore, which covered 220 sq km in 1995, increased to 336 sq km in 2005 and to 665 sq km in 2015. And, if the current pace goes on, the city will be spread over an area of 1320 square kilometers by 2025 – one percent increase in Lahore’s population leads to an increase of 2.82 percent in its area. Recharge of Lahore’s water table from rainfall is 10 to 25 percent, depending on its quantity, intensity and location. In those areas of the city where most of the agricultural land is being eaten up by construction activities, the recharge does not exceed 10% of the total rainfall. In adjoining agricultural areas, however, this recharge is up to 25%.
Therefore, meeting Lahore’s water demand in the near future by groundwater alone will not be possible, and utilizing surface resources will also be indispensable. As an alternative to Lahore’s groundwater, the Ravi, Lahore Branch Canal, Khaira Distributary and Bambawala-Ravi-Badian-Deplapur (BRBD) Canal are the important sources of surface that can be used to alleviate the pressure on the city’s water resources. Water can be obtained from any of these four sources and used for domestic, commercial and industrial use after treatment. Owing to very low water level, the Ravi cannot be considered a reliable source of surface water resources. For sustainable availability of surface water, a reliable alternative to the Ravi can be the BRBD Canal which flows in the East of Lahore. This canal itself takes off from Lower Chenab Canal. The Lahore Water and Sanitation Agency (LWASA) has planned for the provision of the surface water source, for which 2.45 million cubic meters (1000 cusecs) water will be drawn in phases from the BRBD Canal. In the first phase, Punjab Irrigation Department has agreed to provide 100 cusec water. Initially, 100 cusec of water from BRBD Canal near Bhaini Road will be supplied, after treatment, to the selected serving areas of Lahore. In addition, LWASA has taken various important steps to prevent waste of water in the city. It will, hopefully, reduce the pressure on Lahore’s groundwater resources. The city’s water supply has been reduced from 18 hours to 11 hours a day in the summers. But despite all this progress, recharging the depleted water table and saving the Ravi River from becoming a wastewater drain is a formidable task that requires immediate attention and effective measures.
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