Once a water-affluent country, Pakistan is now in the midst of a severe water crisis. Between 1990 and 2015, water availability almost halved from 2,172 cubic metres per citizen to 1,306 cubic metres per citizen. The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) has warned that unless the government takes action, the country may run dry by 2025. The imminent water crisis has received some media attention recently, however, the dialogue remains narrowly focused on public investment for reservoirs and moral appeals to save water. There is a dire need to change the fundamental workings of water governance in the country.
This article focuses on governance issues in the water sector. However, there are many other challenges relating to international and provincial water distribution, water storage, impact of excessive water extraction from natural resources on climate change, water-associated disasters, deforestation and recharge of aquifer which need a separate discussion.
With water scarcity becoming an increasing constraint, the pricing mechanism for water-use by all sectors requires reappraisal. Pricing must recover at least operational and maintenance costs. Even the elite of the country pays a meagre amount for massive use of water at home, industry and vast agricultural farms; only a tiny fraction of the population pays for metered use of water. For households, water charges are based on the size of the plot. Any common resource, when consumed on the basis of fixed rather than marginal cost, is bound to be overly exploited. For agriculture, there are no charges for pumping water from the ground and canal irrigation charges are also minimal, both of which have led to flood irrigation and wastage of water.
Research shows that appropriate pricing of water along with clearly defined and legally enforceable water regulations are the key underlying factors that motivate water conservation. Moral appeals are not enough! Politicians don’t want to hold dialogue about improving water pricing in order to avoid resentment by the constituencies. They fail to acknowledge that inefficient use of available water supplies is playing a major role to exacerbate the impending water crisis. Indeed, even most lower income families would be willing to pay for efficient water provision services, given that they are already paying a high proportion of their incomes either in the form of excessive charges imposed by water vendors (case in point: Karachi), or in time lost due to collecting water from far-flung sources. A survey of residents of Lahore in 2011 found that people were willing to pay $7.50-$9 per month for clean, piped drinking water, which is comparable to the monthly expenditures on in-house water treatment and is about three to four times the average monthly water bill being paid.
Second, there is a need to enhance participation and partnerships in the water sector. Water, being a collective resource available to society, needs a collective response. The public sector must realise that without mobilising and involving all the stakeholders, the crisis will remain unresolved. Communities residing in small cities, towns, slums and villages need to be mobilised to participate in water financing and maintenance. A home-grown model named ‘Changa Pani’ (Clean Water) in Bhalwal has proved that it is possible for communities to work with the government to construct and maintain water supply systems. Other cities, social entrepreneurs and community groups have much to learn from such community participation models and may benefit by customising the approach according to their own circumstances. For big cities the complexity of governance requires public-private partnerships (PPPs) for water availability, quality and distribution. All provinces have already developed PPP frameworks and are pursuing projects in many sectors. However, PPPs in the water sector are almost non-existent. Karachi and other coastal cities need desalination plants to supply drinking water. Almost every city needs water-filtration and treatment plants. But it would be hard to finance and operate them under the public sector. Sindh water commission formed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, for example, found that all water-purifying systems in Sindh are either dysfunctional or redundant. The public sector is agile to build new schemes, but it lacks capacity to maintain filtration plants and distribution system. This is where communities and the private sector can play their part. The recently announced national water policy has specifically emphasised to foster partnerships and participations, but provinces would carefully have to plan appropriate execution of these partnerships at the local level. We have recently started a research initiative with the US-Pakistan Centre for Advanced Studies in Water at the Mehran University of Engineering and Technology (MUET) to assess the possibilities of such partnerships and collective action in Sindh. We hope that this research will provide valuable insights to improve drinking-water governance.
Third, the regulatory regime for water pumping, distribution and usage needs special attention. There is a need to introduce radical measures to regulate the use of water starting from our homes to agricultural fields. Overall regulatory quality is weak in Pakistan but in the context of social and environmental aspects of the society, regulation is generally non-existent. The most wasteful practices are observed in the agriculture sector, where farmers continue to rely on surface rather than drip irrigation, the latter using substantially less water than traditional surface irrigation systems. Other than areas plagued with salinity, drip irrigation is a more efficient and sustainable option. The effective use of water in the agriculture sector is imperative given that it consumes around 90% of water resources in the country.
Fourth, a wave of entrepreneurship and technology development can be witnessed across Pakistan. Many of the entrepreneurs and technologists are working on water issues, starting from water filtration to distribution to irrigation and treatment. The public sector needs to give some space and funding to such startups to further develop and refine their technologies and solutions. We recently met a few experts and faculty members at the Lahore University of Management Sciences who have formed the Centre for Water Informatics and Technology that is leading research on a range of water-related issues. There is an urgent need to engage such water centres at LUMS and MUET to not only provide technological and governance solutions but also to carry out independent monitoring of water management in the country. Such research and engagement of academia can directly feed into policy and regulatory decisions.
Fifth, there is only marginal improvement in the understanding of the importance of clean drinking water in Pakistan. Public investment is still deficient and communities are also unaware about the impact of clean water. Some international research studies have found that poor quality of water is indeed a bigger factor leading to childhood stunting as compared to poverty. There is a need to organise a mass campaign to highlight the importance of water quality and conservation. The purpose of such awareness should be how society at large can act to address water woes faced by the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2018.