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Pakistan perspective

By Syed M. Aslam
Dec 17 - 30, 2001

Spreading water scarcity is one of the most important issue that the world faces today. By now many of us have read distardly predictions about water being the major cause of the wars in near future as well as creating a new breed of refugees, the 'water refugees.'

What has caused the alarm bells to ring is the fact that water use globally has increased three-fold during last fifty years. The tremendous increase in water consumption globally has also resulted in massive underground pumping which still continues to rise. The massive water pumping in turn has resulted in falling of water tables on every continent including the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent.

As 70 per cent of all the water pumped from underground or drawn from rivers is used for irrigation, water scarcity also means food scarcity. That explains the rising grain imports in many countries including India, Iran, Mexico, Egypt, China and Pakistan, an agro-based economy. The case of Saudi Arabia is only slightly different the country, which turned to wholesale use of pumped water for agriculture in the 1970s, had to import 7 million tonnes of grain in 1997 compared to 3 million tonnes three years ago when its aquifers began to dry up in 1994.

The shortage of water affected the province of Sindh most profoundly this year. Till end last month only 20 per cent of the wheat sowing target was achieved in Sindh compared to 63 per cent in the province of Punjab. The Punjab government has fixed a wheat sowing area target of 6.18 million hectares of which 3.898 million hectares was sowed till last month. On the other hand, only 200,000 hectres or 20 per cent of the wheat sowing target of 1.04 million hectares has been achieved in Sindh.

Low forest area also takes a heavy toll on water resources greater tree-cover area means better water -shed protective mechanism for forests. On the other hand, low forest-cover area, or loss of it, impairs this protective mechanism and can result in turning year-round water supplies in seasonal streams, flooding during some periods and drying during others. In neighbouring India deforestation in Ganges river valley has caused heavier flooding and property damage of $ 1 billion per year. Pakistan's forest cover of 4.2 million hectares makes up just 4.8 per cent of the total 87.98 million hectares of total land which is extremely low by international standards. While a study is yet to be made on the harmful impact of heavy illegal loggings it is safe to say that the practise, primarily aimed at using the wood as fuel, is causing an irreversible damage to the environment.

In a country where agriculture is heavily dependent on irrigation backed by a very good canal network water scarcity can play havoc, particularly due to huge wastage in the irrigation process. The last few years have been particularly bad due to unprecedented drought which worsened this year. The total inflow Indus River at Tarbela; River Kabul and River Jhelum at Mangla and River Chenab at Marala which averaged at 136.9 million acre feet (MAF) during the last 18 years fell by 29.2 per cent to 97 MAF in 2000-2001. Similarly, the canal head withdrawals which averaged at 101.2 MAF fell by 16.6 per cent to 84.4 MAF.

The major reason for the acute shortage of water was the below-then-normal rainfall. During mansoon season July-August 2000 the area weighted average rainfall was recorded at 113.4 mm, a decline of 17.5 per cent over 137.5 mm. During winter January-March this year, the average rainfall declined by a huge 34.4 per cent from 74.9 mm to 49.1 mm to not only affect the crops in the barani, rain-fed area but also to reduce the inflow in the three main rivers.

Similarly, the canal head withdrawals in Kharif, the sowing season which begins in April-June and ends in October-December, decreased by 15.8 per cent from 70.84 MAF in 1999 to 59.66 MAF in 2000. In the Rabi, the sowing season which begins in October-December and ends in April-May, the canal head withdrawals registered a 28.8 per cent decrease from 30.04 MAF in 1999-2000 to 21.4 MAF in 2000-2001. The irrigation water situation during the ongoing Kharif crops this year thus worsened.

The situation remains not much unchanged at present. Lack of rainfall this year, including the two preceding winter months, is feared to result in water scarcity next summer while the water levels at dams and reservoirs are declining to precariously low levels. Water level at Tarbela remains just 36 feet away from dropping to the dead level.

Indus Rivers System Authority (IRSA) put the water level at Tarbela at 1,406 ft, just 37 ft above its dead level last week. At Chashma water level was 644 ft last week, a mere 7 ft above its dead level of 637 ft. Water level at Mangla Dam was 1,131 feet, 91 ft above the dead level of 1,040 feet.

The situation poses great danger to Rabi crops, particularly in entirely rain-dependent barani areas, the sowing season of which lasts till end this month and the harvesting of which starts in April-May. The water scarcity has also resulted in reduced quantity of water supply to farmers in the irrigation-fed agricultural areas. IRSA has cut the water quota for Sindh and Punjab by 51 per cent during six months ending in March next year. Lack of snowfall in the mountainous North West Frontier Province thus far during the winter months is feared to worsen an already bad water availability situation.

Bonn conference

As supplies of freshwater grow increasingly scarce, particularly in the developing world, government leaders, policy-makers and other experts gathered on the third of this month in Bonn, Germany for the beginning of the week-long International Conference on Fresh water, to address the crucial issues of better-managing the world's limited supplies of clean water.

The recommendations of the International Conference on Fresh water held in Bonn from 3-7 of this month are expected to be incorporated into the preparatory process for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which will take place in September 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Nitin Desai, the Secretary-General of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, also known as the Johannesburg Summit, said that "managing the planet's limited supplies of fresh water is one of the most important issues we face in building a sustainable future. He added that 'it is crucial to understand that fresh water is an essential element of life on earth. Clean water can also be strategically used as a tool to improve standards of living, especially in rural areas. A well managed supply of clean water supports crops, sustains livelihoods, reduces disease and ensures that ecosystems are safeguarded for the future.'

He also pointed out that the problem in the world today is not a lack of sufficient supplies of fresh water, but serious deficiencies in how water is used and managed. About 1.2 billion people, mostly in rural areas of Asia and Africa, lack access to safe and affordable water due to inadequate investments in water supply and sanitation.

Households account for a relatively small proportion of the amount of water used around the world. Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for about 70 per cent of all fresh water use, and in some areas, such as North Africa, West Asia and South Asia, agriculture accounts for between 85 to 95 per cent of all water use.

The Bonn conference is not the firstever attempt by the international community to address the issue of fresh water. The subject was included as a chapter of Agenda 21, the global plan of action for sustainable development that was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

The difference, according to Arthur Askew, Director of the Hydrology and Water Resources Department for the World Meteorological Organization, is that fresh water is now considered a "crucial" issue. "Fresh water is a serious issue for the world today, one that will become even more challenging in the future", said Askew. But, he explained, the positive development is that there is now a greater interest from many players, including many developed countries, to address the crucial questions of availability and ongoing management of the world's fresh water supplies.

One of the chief issues to be settled, he said, is whether water will be viewed as an economic good. "Some cultures and religions have difficulty with this, but we need a proper realization of the value of water."

Manuel Dengo, Chief of Water and Natural Resources and Small Island Developing States for the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), said he expected the meeting to address the challenges of promoting dialogue between the various sectors of society, governance, financial issues, capacity building, and technology transfer. Noting that disputes often led to conflict over fresh water supplies, he hoped the conference would provide leadership on conflict resolution mechanisms, adding "I do hope they will be able to come up with a set of tangible outputs that will be taken forward and make a real difference in many parts of the world".

Other issues on the agenda in Bonn include the role of gender in water management and the effects of corruption of the proper management of supplies.

Johannesburg Summit

The Johannesburg Summit 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development will bring together tens of thousands of participants, including heads of State and government, national delegates and leaders from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses and other major groups in September 2002. The Summit will address the challenges of sustainable development, which calls for improving the quality of life for all of the world's people without increasing the use of our natural resources beyond the earth's carrying capacity

Truly global problem

While increasing fresh water shortages in almost every area of the world is felt more in arid and tropical regions today they would include all other regions in the future, near future. While rich countries are in a much better to cope with the problem compared to their struggling counterparts in the developing world the situation would pose enormous problems for them in the coming years. By 2025, most of the Earth's population will have access to threatening low quantity of water supply.

A new appraisal (UNESCO, 1998) shows that of the total (1,386 million cubic kilometres) water supplies (Earth's hydrosphere), 97.5 per cent is salt water, and only 2.5 per cent fresh water. The greatest portion of the latter (68.7 per cent) is in the form of permanent ice; 29.9 per cent is ground water, most of it deep below the surface of the earth. Only 0.26 per cent of total fresh water reserves are available for human consumption. Potential reserves amount to nearly 0.1 per cent of global fresh water.

The horrifying water scarcity scenario necessitates the need for technological advancement to tap additional portions of water at costs which unlike present can be economically acceptable. The most viable options are affordable desalination technologies using non-conventional energy sources to make desalinated water available for agriculture and industry; pumping technologies for extracting ground water; and affordable means to tow ice to water deficit areas.

Can anything be done?

Water can neither be created in a factory, mill, industry nor in a lab despite common universal knowledge that it is a compound of Hydrogen and Oxygen. Water tapping, however, can benefit from more efficient technologies which have to be affordable. Improved water-saving techniques can also help lessen the impact of the crisis which is fast turning into global catastrophe measures include drip irrigation systems for judicious use, lining of irrigation canals to prevent loss, efficient sprinklers, and better irrigation timing and volume control. However, use of these techniques remain limited to a handful of countries as the new technologies are not yet been widely adopted. For instance, water-efficient drip irrigation is used in less than 1% of the world's irrigated areas. The costs of building a desalination plant still remains prohibitive.

In the recent past successive governments in Pakistan tried to use the 'Kalabagh Dam issue' more as a reason for getting whatever political mileage and political gains than anything else. At times, they used 'Kalabagh' as nothing more than a ploy to boost sagging popularity and to divert attention of the people from problems that were real. Certainly, the issue which stirs up strong views, and ever stronger emotions, and always results in heated pro and for debates, rallies, demonstrations and strikes offer great opportunities to the politicians.

Having said that, large dams are out and micro hydro projects are in today due primarily to the fact that unlike the later are more benign to environment and human displacement unlike the former. An estimated 30 million people worldwide have been displaced by large dams during last 40 years. A World Bank internal review of large dams financed between 1960 and 1995 concluded that 'only 14 out of 50 met accepted social and environmental status.


The water scarcity problem is turning global with the passing of time. Thus far rich countries in the developed world manage not to feel the pinch while the developing world is increasingly facing access to water by a sizeable portion of its population. The cost of installing alternate water projects remain prohibitive for the developing world where many countries, despite having the will, do not have the funds to mitigate the problem.

However, water scarcity is fast turning into a global problem and global problems need global solutions. The least the world do is to declare water a basic human right to ensure access to water in a world where growing water shortages across the globe, if not checked, would pose crisis of unparallel dimensions depriving billions access to clean water.

The scale of water shortage is alarming: 20m people in six countries in west and central Africa rely on Lake Chad for water. The lake has shrunk by 95% in the last 38 years; two thirds of China's cities are facing severe water shortages; in Iran, up to 60% of people living in rural areas could be forced by drought to migrate to the cities; the level of the Aral Sea in central Asia, formerly the world's fourth biggest inland sea, has dropped 16 metres (53 feet), and its area has almost halved.

By 2025 the volume of water needed to produce food is expected to have increased by at least 50%, because of population growth and the demand for higher living standards.

Growing water shortages threatens to reduce the global food supply by more than 10%.

Agriculture already takes more than 70% of the world's fresh water, with the proportion rising to more than 90% in Asia and Africa.

In a water-scarce world, poor countries will have to choose whether to use their water for irrigation, or for domestic and industrial purposes.

For the 1.3 billion people of the world who have to survive on less than one dollar a day the higher grain prices would be life-threatening. Though we have been able to successfully harness water for energy, industry and irrigation they come at an increasingly terrible cost. Coupled with population growth the dilemma is made much worse.

In the UK each person still has an average of 150 litres of water a day at their disposal. In comparison, people in some of the poorest countries have to survive on a daily water ration the equivalent of a 90-second shower, or less.

Global water consumption rose six fold between 1900 and 1995, which is more than double the rate of population growth. Moreover, this demand continues to grow rapidly as agricultural, industrial, and domestic demand increases. One third of world's population faces water shortages.

Increasing demands are being made by every sector. Industrial water use, for example, is predicted to double by 2025 if current growth trends persist. Water use in agriculture is also expected to increase as world food demand rises. Agriculture already accounts for about 70% of water consumption worldwide and the UN projects the amount of water used in irrigation may double by 2025.

This situation is worsened by pollution which results in decreased water availability for human use. Industrial, domestic and agricultural pollution continues to severely degrade water quality in many rivers, lakes, and groundwater sources.

Excessive use of water by many industries is also a grave matter of concern. For instance, the manufacture of computer wafers, used in the production of computer chips, uses up to 18 million litres of water per day. Globally, the industry uses 1.5 trillion litres of water and produces 300 billion litres of waste water every year.