Pakistan’s Unfolding Water Disaster By Jehangir Khattak

The amount of water available for Kharif crops has declined by 42 percent. This has happened due to a decrease in water inflow to reservoirs, and is an ominous sign for Pakistan’s water and food security. The Indus River System Authority says water inflow decreased from9.32 million-acre-feet (MAF) to around 7.9 MAF, the worst in five years. On its May 15 meeting, the IRSA advisory committee noted that the water shortage experienced since the start of the sowing season had turned out to be much higher than the previous estimate of 31 percent.
The Kharif crop season starts from April-June and lasts until October-December in different parts of the country. Rice, sugarcane, cotton and maize are some of the key crops of the season. Non-availability of water at such a critical time of sowing season is bound to impact food production. Experts say much will now depend on the monsoon showers.
At the meeting, all the five members of IRSA urged the government to build new reservoirs on a “war footing”. But completion of reservoirs in the short term remains a pipe dream. Even though the much-awaited and less-debated National Water Policy (NWP) was approved in April, the roadmap to securing our water remains largely hazy. The policy approval, giving to rest years old disputes between Sindh and Punjab, is a significant achievement but the enormous water challenge needs much more political commitment and institutional action than an agreement between feuding provinces.
The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources says the country has about a seven years window to plug this gap. PCRWR predicts that the country will approach “absolute scarcity” water levels by 2025 if its storage capacity is not enhanced. The NWP aims at doubling the water storage capacity from the current abysmal 30 days to 60, which looks highly unlikely, given the level of seriousness at the official level. And even if Pakistan achieves this feat by completing three Mangla sized dams on fast track by 2025, or even dozens of smaller ones, our water future remains insecure because it will need an additional 60 days storage capacity to reach the global minimum of 120 days. Neighbouring India has 220 days water carry over capacity while Egypt, a lower riparian country like Pakistan, has over 900 days.
Pakistan’s water challenge will be further compounded by the effects of global warming. It is losing its balmy spring to scorching summer at a pace never anticipated before. Temperatures shot past 40 degrees Celsius in March and 50 Celsius in April in parts of southern Pakistan
Pakistan’s water challenge will be further compounded by the effects of global warming. It is losing its balmy spring to scorching summer at a pace never anticipated before. Temperatures shot past 40 degrees Celsius in March and 50Celsius in April in parts of southern Pakistan. Scientists warn that such odd spikes in mercury will be the new normal in the changing weather patterns. If non-seasonal high temperatures remain persistent, food production will be adversely effected. The rule of thumb for temperature versus crop nourishment, experts say, is simple – a 1-degree Celsius increase in temperature can drive down crop yield by 10 percent.
Higher temperatures increase the water demand for both agriculture and domestic consumption and can trigger a full-blown crisis, especially when it is not available. WAPDA has reported that snow availability in the catchment areas of reservoirs was 50 percentless than normal this year and rivers are likely to receive 11 MAF less water.
Most of the seven rivers flowing into Pakistan from Afghanistan, including Kabul, are also likely to stay below normal. Afghanistan received the lowest snowfall in the past 17 years this winter. Agriculture in the landlocked country heavily dependent on water from melting snow. A decrease in snowmelt is adversely impacting its food production.
It is already grappling with a drought affecting two-thirds of the country, triggering food shortages. The United Nations has warned that a 2.5 million tons shortage of wheat this year could impact up to two million people. Food shortages in Afghanistan will bring Pakistan’s agriculture sector under more pressure, and demand additional grain stocks. But growing more grain will be a challenge while also dealing with worsening water scarcity. Low inflows in rivers is bound to increase pressure on Pakistan’s depleting aquifers. It is already pumping more water out of ground than can be replenished naturally.
A 2015 NASA study found that the Indus Basin aquifer, shared between India and Pakistan, is the second most overdrawn in the world, sinking the water tables at rates as high as three feet a year in Indian Punjab, one of the two states that produces 37 percent of India’s food. The situation is no different on the Pakistani side. Quetta is projected to run out of water by the middle of the century, or even before, if additional water resources are not mobilised. The situation in Karachi is even worse while Gwadar, the mainstay of our CPEC-driven future economy, is already without water.
High population rate, lack of storage capacity and overall degradation of water quality are the three factors, other than drop in water inflows and tumbling underground tables, which will accentuate the water crisis. Despite this unfolding disaster, Pakistan’s Investment in maintenance, improvement and expansion of its vast hydraulic infrastructure has remained dangerously low. No new reservoirs have been built in the last 44 years since the completion of the Tarbela Dam in 1974. A few are either on the drawing board or subject of preliminary hydrological and environmental studies, and none in advance stages of completion. Thus, no significant increase in the storage capacity is expected in the short term.
Hypothetically, even if the government doubles the water storage capacity over the next ten years, it will still not fill the gap between demand and supply because of population explosion, urbanisation, and water mismanagement. The rapidly growing population, projected to reach 261 million by 2035, will bring more pressure on the agriculture sector to produce food for an additional 50 million people. Water shortage and climate change-driven high temperatures will make it almost impossible to increase food production to meet the demand, unless some drastic measures are taken to increase the water availability and to conserve available resources.
This is a ticking bomb that could go off any time in the near future. The unfolding disaster is an existential threat – one much more threatening than terrorism — and needs a firm political commitment, innovation and long-term planning with clearly defined short term objectives.
The writer is a New York-based journalist and Co-Director of Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the Graduate School of Journalism of City University of New York Twitter handle: @JehangirKhattak
Published in Daily Times, June 2nd 2018.

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