Water Issues in Pakistan

By | on November 4, 2016 | 0 Comment

water-pakistan-sarfraz-aliWater is the lifeline of the political economy of Pakistan. According to a recent IMF report, Pakistan has the world’s fourth highest rate of water use while in terms of water intensity rate — the cubic metres amount of water used per unit of GDP, the country ranks the first in the world, showing the extent of its economy’s dependence on water. For centuries, Pakistan’s agriculture which is the backbone of the economy is heavily dependent on availability of irrigation water, estimated to be responsible for 25 % of the productivity of any crop. In some crops such as rice and sugarcane, this ratio is several times more.

There are three major issues relating to water as an input for agricultural production in Pakistan-scarcity, water logging/salinity and quality.

1.Water Scarcity: Slowly but surely Pakistan has been inching towards scarcity threshold of 1000 cubic meter per person per year for the last six decades of her existence as an independent nation-state. According to latest estimates, its per capita annual water availability is 1,017 cubic metres which has serious repercussions for the political economy of the country. There are three reasons for this phenomenon- reduction in water supply, increased consumption and inefficient/wasteful use of water.

  • Reduced Supply: Pakistan is located in a semi-arid area where annual rainfall is less than 240 mm which is currently inadequate in terms of meeting the requirements. Pakistan is considered a high water stress region in terms of global standards. According to the IMF, Pakistan is already the third most water-stressed country in the world. Depending on assumptions of various future demand scenarios, annual water requirements at canal head could be in 135-170 MAF range within the next few years. This is against historic average surface water availability of 104 MAF per annum, which is reducing due to siltation in reservoirs and looming threat of climate change. Tarbela has lost nearly 30pc of its storage capacity since the late 1970s. Pakistan’s total dam storage constitutes only 30 days of average demand.

Additional supply of groundwater through tube wells is also under threat because of fast depleting aquifers and soaring prices of diesel and electricity. It estimated that the shortfall in 2025 would comprise almost two thirds of the entire Indus River system’s current annual average flow. In effect, in the absence of immediate action, Pakistan could face the not-too-distant prospect of becoming a water-starved wasteland.

  • Increased Consumption: Although Pakistan has been able to reduce its population growth rates, yet its population is increasing at increasingly unsustainable rates. Consequently all the resources, including water are under pressure. Increasing prosperity with its attendant increased consumption requires more water for production of goods as well as meeting other needs It becomes all the more serious when we realise that her underground aquifers are rapidly depleting while their recharge rate is abysmally low. For example, the aquifer in the Indus Basin, the lifeline of Pakistan’s economy, is the second most stressed in the world. In most of the areas groundwater tables have fallen by up to 100 feet within the last decade or so.
  • Water Use Efficiency: A lot of water is lost from water heads to farms, because of technical deficiencies and human failure. Water evaporation aside, a lot of it is lost in seepage during conveyance because beds and sides of our canals are not lined. Same is the case with the distributaries and water channels. At the farm level, more than 25% of water is wasted because of poor irrigation practices, such as flood irrigation and not using water-efficient techniques. Some crop choices are outright ill-informed. Sugarcane, for example, is twice as water-intensive as rice and four times as intensive as wheat.

2.Waterlogging and Salinization: A side effect of canal irrigation, water logging and salinity have been rendering vast tracts of our arable land unfit for cultivation due to presence of excess water just beneath the surface. Once evaporated, this water leaves traces of salt which over a period of time have reached such high levels that growth of vegetation is impossible. Secondly we have been irrigating our lands with canal water which though very good for the lands, contains salt. Over a period of 6/7 decades of canal irrigation that residue of salt has now started adversely impacting the fertility level of the irrigated lands.

3.Water quality: Quality of water used to irrigate our agricultural lands is a serious issue which unfortunately has never got the attention it deserves. There are three dimensions of this problem.

  • Firstly, Pakistan is located in an area which was once the basin of the Tethys Ocean. With water receding, this piece of land emerged but there are still pockets where the sea water is present. Over-pumping of groundwater in certain areas has depleted the aquifers so fast that we are now pumping out that sea water, adversely affecting the fertility of the lands.
  • Secondly, non-scientific use of pesticides and fertilizers by the farmers is also one of the major causes of water pollution. Excessive use of these chemical inputs have now resulted in their leaching in the land so deep and so extensively that they have not only adversely affecting the quality of lands but also the nutritious quality of the agricultural produce.
  • Thirdly, indiscriminate discharge of municipal waste and the industrial effluents into canals/rivers have also resulted in aggravating the above mentioned problem.


Declining water availability, poor water management and its inefficient use in the face of increasing needs of water due to rapid population growth and increasing living standards are the major issues in Pakistan’s water sector. Keeping in view the importance of water for economic security of Pakistan in the backdrop of its gradual shortfall in its availability and requirements in the years to come, particularly when climate change is compounding the already situation, there is an urgent need to formulate a long term strategy for increasing the water availability, reducing its losses and using it more efficiently. Salient features of this strategy could be

  • Provinces should be responsible for increasing the water availability of irrigation water in their respective provinces through rainwater harvesting and construction of small dams wherever feasible while federal government should concentrate on construction of mega dams for water storage.
  • Although 100% lining of beds and sides of canals and water channels is neither economical nor desirable as their seepage recharges the aquifers which is crucial for tube well irrigation, yet sides of the canals/ water distributaries must be lined for at least 50 to 60 % of their total length.  However the water channels which reach the farms should be lined at basin and sides for at least half of their total length.
  • Provinces should rationalize their respective water-related legislations including local water usage rules and implementation of integrated water resource management. Water tariffs should reflect the scarcity value of water to encourage the farmers to use it more efficiently
  • Encourage public-private partnerships on water saving techniques in cultivation of different water terrains, and other innovative designs of groundwater recharge dams and rainwater harvesting. Generous subsidies on this account are justified.
  • Economical management of ground water pumping through incentives, legislation and awareness. No subsidy should be given for tube wells or the electricity as it encourages indiscriminate use of water.
  • Need for reuse of urban waste water for watering the lawns, parks and for using in urban and peri-urban gardening is not only technical feasible but financially viable proposition. It should be the responsibility of the municipal/local government to enter into joint venture partnership with the private sector to establish such plants. Water thus treated should be purchased by the municipal governments on long term basis.

There is an urgent need to apprise the farmers about the looming threat of climate change which will play havoc with our irrigation water. They should be taught to store and capture water, use water saving technology and adopt water saving practices such as drip irrigation, capturing and storing water, Irrigation, scheduling, planting of drought-tolerant crops


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