Pakistan is an arid country and the patches of green that satellite images show are around the Indus River System (IRS) and the mountainous northern region. Pakistan is reliant on the Indus River System for its sustenance. The IRS provides water for drinking, irrigation, and industries. The IRS system continues to provide an essential lifeline to Pakistan, but the overreliance and impacts of climate change are reshaping the IRS system. In addition, the bilateral tussle on the Indus Water Treaty continues to deepen our water problems. The Indian construction of the western rivers is also stressing the stressed IRS. The internal and external forces continue to impact the water supply in the country.
The per capita availability of water was above 5650 cubic meters per annum in 1951 and at present it is below 1000 cubic meters, accelerated by unbridled population growth and poor water management. As the availability of water drops below 1000 cubic meters, the population faces water scarcity, and below 500 cubic meters, it is absolute scarcity. The average natural supply of water has remained more or less the same, but the increasing population and poor management have dropped the per capita availability.
Most experts around the globe are working and promoting the diversification of water supply options because of the increasing risk of climate change. Water management has always been a supply issue and less work has been done on the demand side. For water supply, Pakistan relies on surface and underground water. Glacial melt forms the major source of water supply in the country. The IRS primarily relies on the annual glacial melt. However, after the introduction of water tube wells, the agriculture area has gone up because of the use of underground water for farming and supply for cities.
Pakistan’s water supply is particularly at risk because of global warming. If global warming continues at the current rate, Pakistan would be left with no glaciers by the turn of the century. In addition, the over-extraction of underground water is alarming because underground is not regulated in the country. Unregulated underground water makes a recipe for disaster when commercial giants fight for water against community needs.
For water supply augmentation, policymakers had historically relied on building huge dams to store and distribute water. Dams not only store water for usage but they are used to produce power and control floods despite their ecological impacts. In addition to dams, other water supply options include underground water, rainwater harvesting, recycled/reclaimed water, storm water, and desalination.
Water supply has increasingly become a basic issue as cities have grown exponentially and the water management infrastructure has not caught up. The inland water issues mostly revolve around poor management, not the unavailability part. Pakistan relies on surface and groundwater to meet its agriculture, domestic and industrial demands.
Some of the compelling water supply challenges that Pakistan faces are declining water availability, inefficient water use, climate change, and water pollution. The declining water availability is a worrying situation for the country and it has been talked about in the media and conferences. The emphasis is put on the construction of reservoirs to store flood, waters, particularly monsoon waters. Large construction projects are politically motivated which makes water storage and provision a political issue instead of treating it as a human rights issue.
Inefficient water use is the least focused challenge, but its dividends are huge. Pakistan’s water demands are skewed towards agriculture which employs 37 percent of the workforce in the country and generates 19 percent of the GDP. The seepage losses in canals amount to 45.5 and 66 percent for lined and unlined watercourses respectively. The use of new methods like sprinklers and drip irrigation is slowly taking space against the traditional flood irrigation system.
Climate change is becoming an existential threat to Pakistan. It is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. It is causing intense drought situations and also accelerating the melting of glaciers in the north of Pakistan. Moreover, the country is already facing frequent floods that are damaging infrastructure.
In addition, water pollution is a huge water supply challenge. Industrial waste, sewage discharge, agricultural runoffs, and urban water runoffs make water harmful for consumption. Access to clean drinking water is becoming a challenge. The challenges are growing big and the authorities will continue to face them until proactive policies are implemented to ensure water supply to the sprawling cities and towns.