Water Security, Pakistan’s most Critical Development Challenge

Water Security

“Water is not only for life … water is life.”

Themed as ‘Water and Sustainable Development’, March 22nd this year marks the World Water Day that is celebrated every year under the banner of the UN-Water. The day serves as an opportunity to highlight the importance of water at the heart of sustainable development. Given the scarce water resources in view of ever-increasing demand of the growing population as well as the, urbanization and industrialization phenomena, water challenge has emerged as a key theme at the global level, forcing governments to draw up policies to address the challenge on urgent basis. It also explains why inter-state and intra-state water conflicts are becoming a routine in the contemporary world. Owing to the very dependence of humanity on water as well as its relevance to a nation’s socioeconomic development, water security is now globally identified as an inseparable component of national security paradigm.

The critical importance of water as a need that connects all aspects of human life is undeniable. People’s well-being and their economic development are profoundly linked to the availability and usability of water. Too little water at a time when it is needed most, can mean drought and food insecurity. Too much water—in the form of floods or storms—can devastate an entire population. Contaminated water, whether from human or industrial sources, claims the lives of children and affects the health of communities worldwide, with far-reaching consequences.

It is in the context of this interconnection of water with other development challenges that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) place great emphasis on ensuring availability and sustainable management of water. This includes achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for all, and ending open defecation with special attention given to the needs of women and girls. But while that is crucial, especially in Pakistan, water’s place in the SDGs go well beyond access—taking into account critical issues such as integrated water resources management, efficiency of use, water quality, trans-boundary cooperation, water-related ecosystems and water-related disasters.

Water-associated problems are amongst the key challenges faced by Pakistan. Pakistan’s water profile has changed drastically from being a water-abundant country, to one experiencing water stress. Between 1990 and 2015, per capita water availability declined from 2,172 cubic metres per inhabitant, to 1,306 cubic metres per inhabitant.  Pakistan extracts 74.3 percent of its freshwater annually, thereby exerting tremendous pressure on renewable water resources.  Despite remarkable improvements in the proportion of the population using improved water sources and improved sanitation facilities, 27.2 million Pakistanis do not have access to safe water and 52.7 million do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities.  The repercussions on health are severe: an approximate 39,000 children under-five die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.  Furthermore, with the increasing burden on water resources, threats will increase to Pakistanis’ well-being from unsafe or inadequate water supplies.

Increasing demand for water and its erratic supply together are resulting in water shortages. Population growth, rapid urbanization, water-intensive farming practices and industrialization all contribute to Pakistan’s increasing demand for water. Simultaneously, the supply side is hampered by climatic changes that have made rainfall more erratic, leading to floods in some years and droughts in others. Excessive pumping of groundwater has raised major concerns over its sustainability. Poor water infrastructure including limited storage capacity and inadequate lining of canals further compounds the situation of water availability. Pollution of available resources mainly due to contaminated agricultural run-offs and untreated industrial and household waste being dumped in water courses, is another factor leading to dwindling freshwater supplies.

Over the years, there were several attempts at both the Federal and provincial levels to delineate the government’s commitment towards combating water issues. The National Climate Change Policy, for example, has provided appropriate action plans focusing on enhancing water storage and infrastructure, better water resource management, enhancing institutional capacities and creating awareness. However, more is needed in terms of implementation. Since the commissioning of the Mangla and Tarbela dams in the 1960s and 1970s respectively, Pakistan has not developed any major water storage infrastructure. Consequently, water storage capacity has often receded to less than 30 days against the minimum requirement of 120 days.  Successful initiatives do exist, such as the ‘Clean Drinking Water for All’ project launched in Punjab, providing clean drinking water through the installation of water filtration plants, but major initiatives for provision of water and sanitation remain limited.

Addressing water issues requires interventions at individual and state levels, focusing on both demand and supply. At an individual level, households and industries need to use water more efficiently and judiciously. This also holds true for the agriculture sector, whereby flood irrigation and plantation of water-intensive crops should be controlled and regulated. In this regard, public education campaigns that focus on enhancing water usage awareness will be helpful. At a broader level, an integrated water management system is needed that promises efficient water distribution for all sub-sectors. This needs to be formally entrenched through an effective institutional and legal system. While water-related issues have been discussed as part of the National Climate Change Policy and National Drinking Water Policy, a holistic national water policy is required. Water pricing to promote efficient use of water, building water storage infrastructure to store excess water, enforcing strict water quality management systems to curb water pollution, controlling population growth and adopting a sustainable pattern of urbanization, are all major issues that require immediate attention if Pakistanis are to have access to the water they need in the future. Bold actions are needed to address this water crisis, otherwise not only will Pakistan not meet the SDGs on water, its future development will also  be hampered.

This article is based on the editorial of the report Development Advocate Pakistan issued by the UNDP Pakistan.

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