Pakistan’s Water Crisis Looming Large

Pakistan's Water Crisis Looming Large

Needless to say, water is one of the most vital substances on earth. All organisms need it for subsistence. The earth would turn into a hell if there were no water. It is the lifeline that sustains humans as well as all the flora and fauna on earth. The anthropological studies reveal that water symbolized the very essence of life in the ancient civilizations. The Romans are said to be the first ones to have piped it to the areas far and wide especially by means of aqueducts. Furthermore, they also came to the realization of the adverse effects of the sewage water, thenceforth made an arrangement of dumping it somewhere away from the population.

When it comes to Pakistan, water is no less than the vertebral column of the country’s economy, especially on account of multiplicity of factors such as dependence on agriculture, and uneven climatic conditions. However, the recent water scarcity itself poses a serious threat to Pakistan and is likely to land the country in a grave water crisis, if a well-integrated national water policy is not drawn up to meet the momentous exigency, that is, the water scarcity. And not to overlook the warning issued by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in its recent report which puts Pakistan among the most water-stressed countries in the world.

The beginning

At the time of its birth, Pakistan inherited a well-developed canal system and a riverine. Essentially an agrarian economy, its national wealth depends considerably on the agriculture sector which accounts for around 23 percent of the national gross domestic product (GDP). Graced with a bounty of fertile soil, Pakistan has been caused by the nature to suffer the blight of an irregular pattern of rainfall. It is among the world’s most arid countries with an average rainfall of under 240mm a year, the result being that its agriculture depends predominantly on a system of irrigation.

The waters from the Indus Basin filled the bill and provided the platform for the development of Pakistan’s economy. However, there came a turning point when the Line of Control (LoC) was drawn, severing the irrigated heartland of Punjab from waters of the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. Plunged shambolically into the prodigious vortex of crisis, Pakistan was caught unaware by the hydraulic despotism of India when the latter brazenly cut off the flux of the waters flowing into Pakistan from its side. For Pakistan, so to speak, it signalled but a death warrant. The two states appeared to be lurching toward a military showdown over waters. However, as luck had it, the bloody escalation was averted. In an unprecedented triumph of water diplomacy, Pakistan negotiated Indus Waters Treaty (hereinafter the Treaty) with India which was signed in 1960. The Treaty was mediated by the World Bank, and it allowed Pakistan rights in perpetuity to the western rivers namely Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, which comprise 75-80 percent of the flow of the whole of the Indus system. The Treaty signed on September 19, 1960, allocated the three eastern rivers namely, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej to India.

Wrong preferences

Pakistan started off, in 1947, as a country affluent in water; with 5000 cubic metres per capita availability of renewable water. The same country is now teetering on the edge of becoming water-stressed with per capita availability down to 1000 cubic metres, and that is abysmal. Many a factor accounts for such a steep decline; the chief reason being an explosive overgrowth of population standing, as per the provisional results of Census 2017, around 207.80 million.

Second, and an equally potent, factor to have caused an unwarranted water stress is the wrong choice of growing water-intensive crops e.g. sugarcane, rice, etc. As lamented by Shafqat Kakakhel, a former ambassador and water expert, growing of sugarcane in Pakistan makes absolutely no sense. In fact, growing sugarcane in a country like Pakistan is tantamount to planting trees, or rather growing a forest in terms of water consumption. Here, in Pakistan, as much as 90 percent of water is used for irrigation purposes.

Third, the outdated infrastructure that has been in place since pre-partition has also led to the harrowing diminution of water. Whilst most countries have innovated their water-management systems like sprinkling and drip mechanisms, optimally serving the purpose and, at the same time, using much less water, Pakistani farmers resort to the outdated method of flooding the crops. It requires an unnecessary high amount of water. What is more, transmission losses owing to the unlined waterways which transport water from rivers is estimated at 40 percent!

The climate change also adversely impacts the water provision as Karakoram-Himalayan glaciers are lost, ergo not flowing into the Indus Water Basin.

Drinking water likely to be rare

The diminished water levels can result in sheer scarcity of clean drinking water. As revealed by a recent research study, as large a toll as 50 percent of people in Pakistan are at stake of getting poisoned from contaminated water that has a high level of arsenic. The toxic arsenic fouls water when it is leached into it from the surrounding rocks and soil. The metal, at high concentration, leads to cardiovascular diseases, cancer and skin problems. Following the large number of wells drilled in the entire Subcontinent in the 1970s, millions of people are now imperilled to have arsenic in the drinking water, something that may be the largest mass poisoning in world’s history. The findings of a research suggest that Pakistan is more likely to be immersed into an arsenic emergency with up to 60-70 millions of Pakistanis exposed to contaminated water. With this in mind, the provision of clean and unpolluted water will remain a distant dream.

Indian hegemony on waters

Between the two estranged neighbours i.e. India and Pakistan, the conflict is not brewing, at least, as much on waters as on Kashmir. The international pundits’ foretelling of wars being waged on waters appears to hold good, given the current tensions between the neighbouring countries over the Indus Basin waters. Furthermore, the bilateral Treaty is on the surface at least at the risk of falling apart.

On 18th of September, some militants attacked an Indian army base in Uri sector in Kashmir, and slew 17 soldiers. The Uri attack, which India obstinately insists was engineered by Islamabad, is claimed to be the deadliest assault of its kind in the last two decades. The incidence stirred up a widespread uproar in India with politicians, war hawks and Hindutva-inspired hate-mongers egging PM Modi on to get tougher on Pakistan – which nevertheless persistently denies involvement. In the wake of the Uri incident, India has begun reviewing the Treaty.

To deny Pakistan’s charge of blocking the passage of water to it, and breaching the terms of the Treaty by building reservoirs on the western rivers allocated in perpetuity to Pakistan, India hurls the counter-argument that it has not fully utilized the 20 percent of the water given to it from the three western rivers. India’s construction of Kishanganga, a 330-megawatt project being built on Neelum River, a tributary of Jhelum River, and Ratle, an 850-megawatt hydroelectric project on Chenab River is in the pipeline. Pakistan’s very survival hinges on the single source of water, that is, Indus River basin, and understandably, Indian ventures sound death bells for the former. As a matter of fact, India has already constructed a dozen of dams and water reservoirs; in addition to hydroelectric projects on western rivers exclusively reserved for Pakistan. A satellite view further discloses Indian designs of constructing 60 plus small dams. In doing so, as the analysts contend, India bid solely to gain a leverage to water manipulation to let loose or block downstream flow at its whims and wishes.

To many, what India has been doing is actually to mount pressure on Pakistan to make it back off from its stance over the Kashmir issue. “Blood and water cannot flow simultaneously”, threatened Modi, further adding that “India would milk to the maximum the rivers controlled by Pakistan.”


1. Chalking out broader water policies for conservation and storage of waters to be utilized in times of exigencies.
2. Developing an updated and innovative irrigation system and new methods and lining the pathway from the concerned river up to the area of use.
3. Creating smaller water reservoirs and dams.
4. Evolving a national water policy based on the consensus of all the stakeholders in Pakistan so as to thwart the criminal Indian mischief.
5. In place of inundating fields – a most wasteful approach – there is a need to install drip-sprinkler irrigation system.
6. Replenishing groundwater levels as well as collecting rainwater by means of small water-storage structures.


Not to forget, silting of the available water reservoirs and low rainfall ring more alarms. The underground water is either depleting at a massive pace or its quality is degenerating. Added to it, more due to our own laxity than external forces, water is being pumped out from ground on a larger scale than it is replenished. Aquifers are fast drying up. The uneven climatic conditions contribute further to the water woes. To say the least, there is a need, a dire need of a robust national policy to avert the impending crisis.

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