Is Pakistan heading towards water bankruptcy?

Pakistan’s water resources are not evenly distributed and are often not located where there is the greatest demand. Unequal access and distribution, together with a growing population, drinking water supply, sanitation and storage capacity, urbanization, progressive industrialization and now climate risk make water management problems a difficult challenge for the country.


Take a leisurely walk on Sunday morning down any street in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, and you will come across at least 3 to 4 houses where cars would be getting their weekly cleaning. Move further towards any petrol station and you will come across rows upon rows of cars waiting for a thorough wash. You might be wondering what’s the big deal? Cars should get washed each week. Sure, but in the wonderful city of Islamabad with a 2.2 million population, where the water authorities release water on alternate days and sometimes after three days or even a week in some less posh areas, cars are washed on an almost daily basis. Sundays is when a lot more water is used since the men folk have a lot more time to spend with their vehicles.

Forget cars. Let’s talk about trees. More specifically, Pakistan’s much-praised 10 Billion Tree Tsunami Project. Being an environmentalist, I am all for afforestation/reforestation, but not when the sole purpose is political optics. Can someone explain the benefit of fast-growing species like eucalyptus, which a WWF audit found made up 19% of all trees grown during the Billion Tree Tsunami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? Five years on, the timber market (read mafia) may enjoy their green wealth when these fast-growing species will be cut down but how does that help mitigate climate change?

Read more: Why Pakistan’s water crisis needs urgent attention?

It is human nature to avoid bad information and rationalize warnings

The same happens when the issue of water scarcity and security is highlighted in Pakistan. The reality is that Pakistan may face an absolute water crisis as early as 2025. There is a dire need to reframe this issue and synchronize it with growth and development policies.

So, what’s the bad news?

Last year, all the Chili plantations in District Badin, Sindh province dried out due to shortage of water. Cotton fields are dying and rice which is usually planted in May has not been sown due to water shortage. According to the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), there is severe shortage of water and this year Sindh will get 5.385 million acre feet water instead of 8.292 million acre feet. There has been 35 % decline in its allocation.

The Sindh province is crying there is no water. Punjab claims that it is not stealing water from other provinces. The Met department claims that all shortage is because of climate change. Different narratives are being chanted, but no one addresses the problem.

To understand this water governance crisis, one needs to understand the context which is the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan. Pakistan gave up its control over three eastern tributaries of River Indus to India to avoid an all-out war with its neighbor since these rivers come from Indian Occupied Kashmir. After 1947, water allocation between provinces was done through ad hoc and informal mechanisms.

The total inflow of these waters was 33-million-acre feet

In 1991, after 44 years, provinces devised a Water Allocation Strategy according to which Punjab took 47%, Sindh 42%, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) 8% and Balochistan 3%. As per the 1991 Accord, the total water in the Indus River system is 117.35 MAF, but in KPK, there are 3 civil canals in which 3 MAF water goes every year so 114.35 MAF water is left. Punjab got 55.94 MAF, Sindh got 48.79 MAF, KPK 5.78 MAF and Balochistan 3.87 MAF.As one can see, there is a Catch22 in this provincial distribution. This allocation talks of numbers, not in terms of water quality which is different in every region of Indus. The allocation was done in terms of percentage. Anything greater than 117.35 MAF was to be distributed in percentage. Both these crucial variables were not considered during the Accord, and this was done deliberately.

Later, environmental water became the topic of discussion between provinces. Mangroves prevent sea incursion into the mainland during high tides. They need a constant inflow of freshwater to stay alive. Below the Kotri Barrage is the Indus Delta and if Sindh does not get fresh water, all the mangroves will die. Given the pace of depletion of coastal forests, land is eroding into the sea approx. 800 acre/ day. Therefore, it was agreed that 10 MAF would be given to Sindh, but the real question was from where would this water come from?

Given interprovincial rivalry, Punjab presumed that Sindh had demanded an exaggerated amount so the Federal Government was contacted and a team of international consultants gave their analysis in 2005 and redesigned water demands for the Indus Delta. Then, there is the issue of link canals. Sindh complains that Punjab is using flood canals as irrigation canals and stealing water.

Read more: Pakistan’s Real Challenge: Water Crisis

Currently 97% of the fresh water in Pakistan is used in the agriculture sector, and only 3% is available for domestic and industrial use. Agriculture contributes 18% to the GDP of Pakistan. There are two harvest seasons in Pakistan -Rabbi and Khareef. Rabi is winter harvest in which wheat, gram, tobacco, rapeseed, and mustard are grown. Khareef is summer in which rice, sugar cane, cotton, maize millet are grown. Sugar cane and rice are the cash crops of Pakistan.

Bad agriculture choices, flood irrigation, lack of hybrid seeding is taking a toll on water resources. Underground water aquifers are depleting extremely fast. Basin-wise water resource management is absent. 40% water evaporates or lost to pilferage. Let us not forget salinity and waterlogging – in the agricultural sector, one-third of agricultural land is waterlogged, and 13% cultivable land is saline.

The role of women in domestic water use is crucial, but unfortunately their role remains unrecognized and voices unheard another indication that Pakistan’s water problem is that of ineffective management, rather than availability: “Domestic water supply as well as irrigation management both saw a shift towards more participatory and privatized approaches during the 1980s and 1990s. Assessments are mixed about the success of the participatory schemes. Overall, the availability of safe drinking water in all provinces dropped between 1995 and 1999.

In irrigation, due to a focus on physical targets rather than on capacity building in water user associations (WUAs), the positive effects of these schemes were largely appropriated by the economic and political elite, increasing the marginalization of poorer farmers.”

Pakistan also depends on glacier melt. Glaciers are not melting in Pakistan since the last two years. Climate change has been causingweather pattern shifts in different parts of the country which requires focused solutions not one size fits all ones.KetiBunder, located near the Arabian Sea, has been hit by frequent seasonal/tropical storms increasing the risks of floods. This is also the only coastal region of Pakistan whose geographical boundaries have changed thrice over the past several decades due to progressive sea intrusion.Pakistan’s port city of Karachi is a repeat victim of severe flooding.  At the heart of any hopes for change, are much-needed governance reforms to allocate and manage scarce resources.

Regarding storage, India has 190 days of water storage, Colorado River in the US has 900 days water storage. In Pakistan, the live storage capacity is10% of average annual flow of its rivers which is far below the world average 40%. Pakistan can survive for only 30 days.

A6.1 MAF active storage damhas been on the books for many years – the KalabaghDam, but no government has had the intention nor political will to construct it given the political rifts between provinces. Instead, the government is constructing the Diamer Basha Dam in the most difficult place – on the River Indus between Kohistan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Diamer district in Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan administered Kashmir.

Pakistan’s water resources are not evenly distributed and are often not located where there is the greatest demand. Unequal access and distribution, together with a growing population, drinking water supply, sanitation and storage capacity, urbanization, progressive industrialization and now climate risk make water management problems a difficult challenge for the country.

Pakistan was water-abundant in the past, but now it is a water-stressed country by 1,300 cubic meter per capita. Water stress in Pakistan is around 70%. Water consumption per GDP unit is one of the highest – 1000 cubic meter per year per person is considered water scarce. Pakistan is at 1017 cubic meter per year per person. At the time of independence, it was around 6000 cubic meter per year per person.

From the above, it is clear that Pakistan’s water governance challenges can be dissected into malaise at the political (and even individual) level and a sheer lack of capacity in terms of administrative capability.

While it is true that the absence of infrastructure funding and coordinated master planning, alongside policy bias makes any allocation of sufficient resources impossible; plus, investing twice as much capital funds for dams and storm water controls to prepare for a once in 60-year storm as compared to a once in 15-year storm is a luxury which is simply unavailable to most developed countries the world over, leave alone developing ones,Pakistan is in dire need of bigger dams. Small dams are runoff river projects and are not suitable for storage. Sure, big dams may be environmental hazards; but Pakistan’s water problems have reached a point where one needs to focus on environmental compromise to save lives.

Read more: Pakistan likely to go underwater again

The water governance narrative needs to be reassessed and synchronized with other public policies like agriculture, climate change, forest, trade etc. Pakistan’s first National Water Policy, (which came after 71 years in 2018) falls short in terms of lack of attention given to water-sensitive urban designs, risk management against natural hazards and mapping of water-sector development in line with the Sustainable Development Goals; and trade in water-intensive crops. Water storage and water management should be the focus of the government along with transparent assessment in every province for both inflow and outflow of water. There is a dire need for state-of-the-art real-time telemetry systems.

We were supposed to have one, but due to interprovincial rifts, this is gathering dust since 2005. Any policies to these challenges should include customized, location-specific solutions which can deal with the topographical, source water body, receiving body, and socioeconomic context of the urban/rural setting. If necessary interventions are not made both at federal and provincial levels, Pakistan will face what we often hear in apocalypse movies, “an Extinction Level Event.”


The writer is Chair of Economic Security at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) based in Islamabad, Pakistan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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