Pakistan, a water-scarce country and the reasons why?

Water is a basic necessity of every human being, used for different purposes including drinking, cooking, cleaning, and washing. In Pakistan, the availability of water is worsening day by day. Amid the major social and political turmoil, the water crisis is also a grave subject of concern stood beside.

The water crisis of Pakistan is revolving on social, political, and technical grounds, and it has severe impacts on the overall economy and human development of the nation. The potent mix of the water crisis has emerged in the shape of water scarcity across all parts of Pakistan.

However, there are certain global parameters to gauge water scarcity. The parameters judge the state of water affairs at different levels particularly through per capita availability (PCA), annual availability, and its comparison with physical, economic, and quality conditions. These parameters help researchers, think tanks, laboratories, and the government enough to conceptualize the water affairs of the country.

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The Falkenmark Indicator aims to find out a relation between water and the human population and it reveals that a country having a per capita water availability of less than 1700 cubic meters (cm) is water-stressed. Similarly, when the per capita availability falls below 1000 cm the country is a water-scarce, and when it falls below 500 cm, the country is said to be a serious water-scarce country.

When one looks at Pakistan’s water canvass through the lens of the Falkenmark Indicator, it is found that Pakistan is the world’s fifth-most populous country. An increase in population decreases the per capita availability of water. Historically, in 1950, the per capita availability of water in Pakistan was over 5000 cm. but with the passage of time as the population grew abnormally the existing availability is going below the required amount. According to National Action Plan 2019-20, the per capita availability of water in the country has decreased over the last seven decades to an alarming level of 935 cm from 5260 cm. It is estimated that if Pakistan’s PCA falls below 500 cm by 2025, it would be touching the absolute water scarcity line nationally.

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Secondly, Water Resource Vulnerability Index helps compare annual water availability with annual water withdrawal in terms of percentage, states that if the annual water withdrawals of any country are between 20 to 30 percent then the country is said to be water scarce. Under this parameter, the total surface water available in Pakistan is about 190 billion cm whereas available groundwater is 73 billion cm. Hence, the total available water including surface and groundwater accounts for 263 billion cm. In terms of availability, the country is getting the appropriate amount of water but its uses in terms of withdrawals are too high. The total surface water usage in Pakistan is about 140 billion cm whereas groundwater contributes 62 billion cm.  The total water consumed is around 202 billion cm which is 77 percent of the total available water.

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Thirdly, it is imperative for the country to understand the demand and supply nexus. The International Water Management Institute’s (IWMI) physical and economic indicators try to advocate that the countries that are not able to meet the estimated water demands by 2025 even after accounting for the future adaptive capacity will stand as physical water scarce. Moreover, the countries that have sufficient natural resources, have to make a very significant investment in water infrastructure to make these resources available to their people and are appraised as economic water-scarce countries.

One can evaluate that the total water shortfall of Pakistan was 11 pc in 2014, and it will increase to 31 percent by 2025 due to rapidly growing population, mismanaged urbanization, rural-urban migration, deforestation, and climate change. Owing to this shortfall of water, there would be a food shortage in the country in the future. In order to deal with the issue, Pakistan has to make significant investments and efforts to meet the water shortages. Hence, according to IWMI, Pakistan is physically and economically water scarce.

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Fourthly, the Water Poverty Index (WPI) assesses water scarcity on five components namely  (i) access to water, (ii) water quality, quantity, and variability, (iii) water uses for domestic, food, and productive purposes, (iv) capacity for water management, and (v) environmental aspects. According to WPI, if water is available but of poor quality, the country is still a water-scarce country.

When filtering Pakistan’s water profile through WPI, it is instituted that the Pakistan council of research in water resources on underground water: there are 20 cities where water is collected from various sources is found unsafe for drinking for more than 50 percent. On top of the list, Mirpurkhas, Shaheed Benazirabad, and Gilgit’s water are 100 percent unsafe for drinking.

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Moreover, the water quality of Multan, Karachi, Sargodha, and Bahawalpur is below 70 percent. Water was found contaminated mainly with arsenic, iron, fluoride, and bacteria. The presence of these substances in water can lead to skin diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes. According to Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, the poor quality of water is responsible for contributing to 30 percent of diseases and 40 percent of deaths in the country. Ironically, the deteriorated quality of water in Pakistan is posing a serious threat to the overall health security of the nation vis-à-vis is also a water-scarce country according to WPI.

It can be opined that comparing four global parameters with the contemporary water affairs of Pakistan shows that Pakistan is really a water-scarce country that needs immediate attention from international organizations and the government. The government needs to build innovation and a holistic approach to address this serious issue in order to avoid the current and post-water vulnerability of Pakistan.

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This Op-ed was contributed by Asad Jabbar. The writer is a researcher and freelance contributor. He can be reached at 

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