Pakistan has been inching towards a water crisis for decades. In 1951, it was a water-abundant country with an annual per capita availability of around 5,260 cubic meters (m3). By 2013, this declined to as low as 964 m3 per annum. The country is expected to become “absolute water scarce” — less than 500 m3 per capita per annum — by 2035.
Two studies show how declining water availability works in practice. According to the first, while average surface flows for a 30-year period from 1978-2008 were 140 million acre feet (MAF), the same for 1998-2008, was 128.52 MAF. According to the Economic Surveys of Pakistan, the availability of water during the Rabi season in 2013-14 was 10.7 per cent less than normal; in 2014-15 it was 9.1 per cent less than normal and according to media reports for 2015-16, the availability of water was estimated to be 20 per cent below normal. Declining water supplies have an immediate impact on agriculture. In 2015-16, agriculture recorded a negative growth of 0.19 per cent against a targeted growth of 3.9 per cent and a growth of 2.53 per cent in 2014-15. Three main factors are responsible for the decline in water availability.
First, the growth rate of Pakistan’s population has been one of the fastest in South Asia. From a population of 32.4 million in 1951, it has reached an estimated 195.4 million in 2015-16 while the supply of water has remained the same (barring the waters of the eastern tributaries of the Indus that came to India under the Indus Water Treaty).
Second, Pakistan’s water utilisation is extremely inefficient. Due to the poor maintenance of infrastructure, about two-thirds of the water is lost due to faulty transmission and seepage in the canal systems. Not surprisingly, its productivity per unit of water of 0.13kg/m3 is one of the lowest in the world.
Third, Pakistan has not invested in dams to store water for use during the lean winter months. As a result, almost 30 MAF of water is discharged into the sea. Worse, the existing dams — Tarbela, Mangla and the Chashma Barrage — have lost almost 20-25 per cent of their storage capacity due to silting.
The water problems of Pakistan are going to get further compounded in future. First, according to the UN’s “median variant”, Pakistan’s population will reach 335 million by 2050 from the present estimate of 194.5 million. Second, of its total water resources of approximately 200 MAF, Pakistan uses about 74 per cent of the surface water and 83 per cent of renewable groundwater resources. Such usage is unsustainable. The availability of surface water is declining due to climate change, changes in rainfall pattern, melting of glaciers, etc. Since the river flows are heavily dependent on the Himalayan glacial-melt, any impact of global warming on these mountains will have a double whammy impact — first flooding due to accelerated melting and thereafter a substantial decrease in river flows. Third, the UN estimates that water demand is projected to rise to 274 MAF by 2025, while total water availability is not likely to change from 200 MAF. This gap of about — 74 MAF — is almost two-thirds of the Indus river’s current annual average flow.
Pakistan blames India for its water woes and accuses it of “water terrorism”. The matter has been set to rest by a report made to the Senate Standing Committee on Water and Power on July 9, 2015 that held that India was using less than its allocated share under the Indus Waters Treaty and was not responsible for water shortage in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s deteriorating water security would be catastrophic for an economy in which irrigated agriculture plays a dominant part. Water insecurity has the potential of being the tipping point in Pakistan’s trajectory towards the abyss.