The Worsening Water Crisis

The Worsening Water Crisis

Why is Pakistan running dry and how to manage the situation?

Pakistan is approaching the scarcity threshold for water. What is even more disturbing is that groundwater supplies — the last resort of water supply — are being rapidly depleted.  And worst of all is that the authorities have given no indication that they plan to do anything about any of this.”  _Michael Kugelman South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson center 

Scarcity of water is a huge problem faced by many countries of the world, especially the developing ones. The effects of environmental degradation and poor management of available water resources have made water one of the scarcest resources in poor economies. As a result, there is a struggle for this resource and this sometimes leads to conflicts. The India-Pakistan water conflict arises from struggle for scarce resources. Growing scarcity of water resources, increasing population and poor management have resulted in an increasing demand for  the construction of new water reservoirs. 

“People in power are responsible for water crisis as they only ask for vote and do not provide basic necessities to the public.” These words by the honourable Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar, aptly depict the lethargy on and indifference to the critical issue of water in Pakistan. It is shocking that Pakistan is on track to become the most water-stressed country in the region, and 23rd in the world, by the year 2040, according to a report by the World Resources Institute. Neil Buhne, UN humanitarian coordinator for Pakistan, warns that no person in Pakistan, whether from the north with its more than 5,000 glaciers, or from the south with its ‘hyper deserts’, will be immune to this impending disaster.

It is to be noted here that the issue of water crisis in Pakistan is not new; experts have been ringing the alarm bells since long. They cite various reasons behind this grave situation. Some of them are being discussed hereunder:

1. Excessive use of water

Pakistan has the world’s fourth-highest rate of water use. Its water intensity rate — the amount of water, in cubic metres, used per unit of GDP — is the world’s highest. This suggests that Pakistan’s economy is more water-intensive than that of any other country. According to the IMF, Pakistan’s per capita annual water availability is 1,017 cubic metres — perilously close to the scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic metres. Back in 2009, Pakistan’s water availability was about 1,500 cubic metres.

The bulk of Pakistan’s farmland is irrigated through a canal system, but the water supplied in this way is vastly underpriced, recovering only a quarter of annual operating and maintenance costs. Meanwhile, agriculture, which consumes almost all annual available surface water, is largely untaxed.

2. Growing population & urbanization

Exponential population growth is another factor contributing to this crisis. For instance, at the time of independence in 1947, Pakistan’s population was low, and therefore per capita water availability was more than 5,000 cubic metres per person per day, which made Pakistan a water-abundant country at the time. But today, it has fallen to nearly 1,000 cubic metres per person, which is why it is said that Pakistan is a water-scarce country.

With the population growing even faster than projected, and the intensity of water use remaining high, if no remedial actions are taken now, the water needs of the 208 million Pakistanis will continue to escalate dramatically. The rapidly growing population, which is projected to reach 261 million by 2035, will bring more pressure on the agriculture sector to produce food for an additional 50 million people.

3. Climate change

In its latest climate risk report, the Germanwatch think tank suggested that Pakistan is the world’s seventh most vulnerable country to climate change. Water scarcity in Pakistan has been accompanied by rising temperatures. In May 2018, a number of people died from heatstroke in Karachi. In 2015, at least 1,200 people died during a spate of extremely hot weather. These heat waves are a result of climate change. In Pakistan, the monsoon season has become erratic in the past few years. The winter season has shrunk from four to two months in many parts of the country.

4. Wastage of water

Apart from the water storage issue, experts say that water wastage is also a big issue in the country. In July 2017, Chairman WAPDA Lt. Gen (Retd) Muzamil Hussain told the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that Pakistan wastes water worth 25 billion rupees every year. About four months later, on November 2, officials from Indus River System Authority (IRSA) disclosed at the Senate Forum for Policy Research that water dumped into the Arabian Sea each year is actually worth 21 billion dollars. These shocking numbers lack details and may remain questionable until more data is shared. But, they pinpoint that beyond any realm of doubt the scale of water wastage is unacceptably high in Pakistan, given the country’s dangerously low water-storage capacity. IRSA data suggest the country can store only up to 30 days’ worth of water, against India’s capacity to store water enough for its 320 days’ needs.

5. Water politics

The Tarbela and Mangla dams, two major water reservoirs, reached their “dead” levels in May 2018. The news sparked a debate on social media over the inaction of authorities in the face of this grave crisis.

Pakistan receives around 145 million acre feet (MAF) of water every year but can only save 13.7 MAF. Pakistan needs 40 MAF of water but 29 MAF of our floodwater is wasted because we have few dams.

In 1960, the World Bank brokered the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) that gives Pakistan exclusive rights to use the region’s western rivers — Indus, Jhelum and Chenab — while India has the authority over three eastern rivers. The Pakistani government says New Delhi is not fulfilling its responsibilities under the IWT as it voices concerns over India’s construction of new dams. New Delhi has built the Kishangaga hydroelectric plant in the north of Bandipore in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir region.


1. Role of government and the parliament

Pakistan needs three Mangla-sized dams to conserve the amount of water it loses in the sea each year. But there is scant hope for completion of such massive reservoirs anytime soon given the lack of government interest in improving and expanding the hydraulic infrastructure. The projects undertaken so far are facing long delays and massive cost overruns. The government is showing little urgency to speed up work on the dam projects, such as Diamer-Bhasha, Bunji, Dasu, Pattan and Thakot. Like the decision-makers, the indifference toward water challenge is also visible in the parliament, political discourse and even the media. Few seem to care about the doomsday scenario of Pakistan running out of time in the race to shore up the yawning gap in its water storage and water use. The Pakistani authorities need to step up efforts to overcome the water crisis. First of all, our leaders and stakeholders need to take ownership of this challenge and declare their intention to tackle it. Simply blaming previous governments, or blaming India, for the crisis won’t solve anything. Crafting sustainable solutions will require an integrated approach to supply and demand management.

2. Water conservation

Next, the government needs to institute a major paradigm shift that promotes more judicious use of water. In the long-term planning, coming up with strategic conservation strategies the is key. Both surface and groundwater resources are being used at capacity, and current methods of extraction and uses are not only unsustainable but are also damaging to the economy and human security today and in the future.

In addition, it is essential that Pakistan diversifies its water resources to ensure water availability. We have examples from many countries that can be adapted to Pakistan. For instance, Singapore follows The Four Taps Strategy to tackle water shortages, and Japan has invested heavily in water-saving technologies. Similarly, we have plenty of rainwater year-round that can be recycled and stored as is being done in the Maldives.

In all those countries, a price is put on water use. It’s important to note that for a country like Pakistan water is almost a free commodity. Unlike electricity, there are no water metres in houses where people pay accor­ding to usage. Thus, there is enormous, unmeasured water wastage. To sensitise the public on water wastage it is critical that water usage is metred.

3. Judicious water use in agriculture

Current irrigation practices are largely inefficient, and water productivity is lowest in the Indus Basin’s irrigated agriculture. According to UNDP, the development of laser levelling technology and furrow-bed irrigation has resulted in saving 30pc of water and has led to an increase in productivity by 25pc in Punjab’s Okara district. Such a model should be replicated in other areas, as well as other methods, such as expanded drip irrigation farming systems. Hence, water management needs to become a top priority for Pakistan.

4. Building more dams

We have enough freshwater to meet our needs but it is being wasted due to poor management. We cannot save this water due to a scarcity of dams. Specialists and experts are of the view that dams are the only solution to the growing threat of water shortage. Recently, while briefing the Senate Standing Committee on Water Resources, Chairman WAPDA emphasized on the building of mega dams to increase the country’s water capacity and also called for setting a price for water. Pakistan hasn’t built new dams since the 1960s. The governments, whether military or civilian, have never thought of making new dams for storing water in order to manage water crisis.


Water crisis is a ticking bomb that could go off any time in the near future. The unfolding disaster is an existential threat – one much more threatening than terrorism — and needs a firm political commitment, innovation and long-term planning with clearly defined, short-term objectives.

Expert Opinion on Kalabagh Dam

Shamsul Mulk

Former Chairman WAPDA

The construction of new hydel dams, including Kalabagh dam, were vital to control massive loss of water during monsoon and to meet growing energy and agricultural needs of the ever increasing population of the water starved country. Dams are necessary to feed increasing population, increase the cultivation area, boost industrial output and to save the country from becoming a desert. China and India had built 22,000 and 4500 small, medium and big dams respectively, but Pakistan had comparatively constructed very little number of dams despite having huge water potential stretched from Himalya mountains to Karakoram and Hindu Kush regions. The Worsening Water CrisisPakistan can face a major water crisis if we did not construct hydel dams including Kalabagh and Diamir Bhasha by 2025. The reservations being raised by some quarters regarding drowning of Nowshera, Charsadda, Swabi, Mardan and Peshawar districts after construction of Kalabagh dam were not based on facts and ground realities.

Lt. Gen. Muzammil Hussain

Current Chairman WAPDA

Technically it is possible to construct the Kalabagh Dam, and the concerns of Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa [about the dam] have already been addressed. It is now up to the politicians to decide the fate of this dam. The Indus enters Pakistan at an altitude of 8,430 feet and gives a drop of 7,030 feet till Kalabagh at an altitude of 1,400 feet, thereby providing multiple sites along the stretch for building reservoirs and run-of-the-river projects.

Abdul Ghafoor

Managing Director PTDC

Kalabagh Dam is the need of the hour. Its construction imperative for achieving sustainable national development and progress as it will not only resolve country’s water crisis but will also bring prosperity to the country and provide jobs to thousands of people. The dam would also reduce water scarcity in the country by raising the water table. Those opposing Kalabagh dam are in fact against Pakistan and its development.

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