Yesterday was the United Nations (UN) World Water Day, and Pakistan remains on the precipice of becoming a chronically water-scarce country. According to the World Bank’s recently launched Pakistan@100 report, only 36 percent of the country’s population has access to safe drinking water. Limited supply, high leakage levels, rapid unplanned urbanisation and insufficient power generation were found to be the cause. This issue has also become tied to the growing levels of inequality, because although 96.9 percent of the urban population had access to potable water, only 59.7 of the urban population was this lucky. This is a level of water of inequality that was higher than in other countries in the region. However, the most alarming revelations were that a whopping 25 percent of Pakistanis were vulnerable to arsenic contamination and since 2006, 20 to 40 percent of the country’s hospital beds were occupied by patients suffering from water-related diseases such as cholera, typhoid and hepatitis.
It should be pointed out that the country’s last significant attempt to fix this problem — former Chief Justice Saqib Nisar’s Diamer-Bhasha dam fund — has been an abject failure. Launched in July 2018, the fund could only collect Rs 9.8 billion of the required Rs 1.5 trillion by January 2019. However, this was probably for the best. Recent studies have revealed that mega-dams come at a considerable environmental cost, and usually fail to provide any benefits to the populations that have to be displaced for their construction. Furthermore, Pakistan has one of the most inefficient water transmission systems in the world. A report prepared by the Burki Institute of Public Policy Netsol has revealed that around 60 percent of the water in our canal systems is lost during conveyance from the canal head to the farm gate. Much of this water is also used to irrigate crops that are very water intensive but contribute next to nothing to the national GDP. Therefore, any supply-side solution will fail as long as our flawed economic model and irrigation systems are not fixed.
It is hoped that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government will learn from previous mistakes, and work towards resolving Pakistan’s water woes. After all, access to potable drinking water is a constitutional right in this country. *
Published in Daily Times, March 23rd 2019.