In an age of Panama Papers, Paradise Leaks and Pakistan’s endemic political circus, many important subjects are being lost in the dust of breaking news and sensational views. Water, which sustains Pakistan’s agro-based economy, has been in the headlines in a section of the media in recent weeks but did not receive the attention it deserved.
First, it was WAPDA chairman Lt. Gen. (Retd) Muzamil Hussain who told National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee in July that every year Pakistan wastes water worth 25 billion rupees. About four months later, officials from Indus River System Authority (IRSA) disclosed at the Senate Forum for Policy Research on November 2 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.
However, what remains beyond the realm of doubt is the scale of water wastage, which is unacceptably high, given Pakistan’s dangerously low water storage capacity. IRSA data suggests 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. Pakistan has one of the world’s highest rates of water usage but its per capita water availability has drastically reduced from 5,300 cubic meters (CUM) in 1947 to less than 1,000 CUM in 2016. It touched the “water stress line” in 1990 before crossing the “water scarcity line” in 2005. Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources warned in a report released early this year that the country would approach the “absolute scarcity” level of water by 2025.
IRSA says 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 in the near future given the lack of government interest in improving and expanding the hydraulic infrastructure. The projects so far undertaken 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 towards 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 use. With its current storage capacity, Pakistan may find it almost impossible to increase its food production and feed its exploding population in the future. The water crisis will worsen with the unfolding Climate Change, imperiling its food security even more. Scientists warn that South Asia will be one of the regions worst hit by changes in weather patterns.
The World Meteorological Organization says 2017 is most likely to be one of the three hottest years on record with many high-impact events, including catastrophic hurricanes and floods, debilitating heat waves and droughts. WMO says exceptional heat affected parts of southwest Asia in late May. On May 28, temperatures reached 54.0°C in Turbat, Balochistan, and also exceeded 50°C in Iran and Oman. Pakistan Meteorological Department has already declared 2017 as the hottest year in the country’s history.
In other parts of South Asia, rains and flash floods left 1,200 people dead, uprooted more than 41 million, destroyed close to half a million homes and standing crops on millions of acres in India, Bangladesh and Nepal during this past monsoon season. Flash floods washed away an estimated one million tons of rice in Bangladesh, dealing a significant blow to its economy. UN officials say the massive toll was the worst in years.
These cataclysmic changes will have profound consequences for Pakistan, whose water security, beside rains, is dependent on a single source – the Indus river basin. Experts predict two major changes in Pakistan. The first being an unexplained continued expansion of glaciers in the Himalayas on the Pakistani side and second, a spike in temperatures, torrential rains and floods at times when they are not needed. Rain-induced flood damage may grow even more because of a tattering flood protection infrastructure.
Lack of water storage will accentuate the threat of extended droughts and food shortages. Demand for water will spike even if Pakistan’s area under cultivation remains unchanged in the future because farmers will need more water to keep the soil moist in high temperatures, when the evaporation will also peak. This will adversely impact productivity and stoke hunger.
These nightmarish predictions may become a reality as early as 2025 when Pakistan’s water availability is projected to reach “absolute scarcity” level. Pakistan will have to change its current self-destructive course of wasting its most prized asset and do something about it on urgent basis. It is running out of time to escape a dry future with disastrous consequences and has to build new reservoirs and complete those under construction expeditiously, well before 2025. The clock is ticking. But is anyone listening?
The writer is a New York-based journalist, and Co-Director of Centre for Community and Ethnic Media at the Graduate School of Journalism of City University of New York.