Home Global Village The water quest: In search of a solution to alarming scarcity

The water quest: In search of a solution to alarming scarcity


Ahmad Ammar |

Earliest of the life forms evolved in water bodies around 4.3 billion years and Greek philosophers went to the extent of saying that life, in its essence, is water. Who can understand it better than the residents of Thar or water scarce areas of Baluchistan who have to spend a part of their day in the struggle of arranging and delivering water to their families? This tale is not just limited to deserted areas; it also haunts metropolitan households of Karachi and even beyond continents in Flint (Michigan, USA) where one might find lead-poisoned water supply in their mains. The distinction of the developed and developing world seems to be dwindling here as we all find this necessity becoming a luxury.

Provision of clean water is a necessary network in any modern societal infrastructure but we find something going wrong here. This important ongoing debate stirred in Pakistan after media attention of a PCRWR (Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources) report released in 2016, which stated that water shortfall will rise to 31% by 2025.

Polyester fibers in our clothes are made out of the same chemical, which is used in plastic bottles. When clothes are washed, thousands of microfibers are allowed in our water bodies.

It was followed by judicial activism in the form of the dam [fund] initiative and civic movement in which people self-organized for environmental campaigns like plantation drive. The concern here is the relative unavailability of water at a given place and time, and the polluting sources, which render water inconsumable for life – the culprit being inefficient water management.

Quantitative Affair

The concept of the water footprint is used to define and compare the consumption of water volumes by different entities of society. According to environmentalists, on an average, 9 Liters (L) water is used in the production of 1l Coca Cola, 2700 L for a cotton t-shirt, 10,000 L for jeans, 140 L for a cup of coffee. Considering the fashion industry, which has to perpetually innovate and advertise to grow sales and profits, 20,000 L water is used to produce 1 KG cotton.

Read more: Water woes of Pakistan

This amount is 2 L for a 1 L mineral water bottle and 910 L for a smartphone. Just the annual water footprint of Coca Cola is more than the drinking water requirements of 8 billion people. Our economic and business model, which thrives on consumerism, is unsustainable for the planet.

Environmental Pollution

As bound by internationally accepted Environmental Protection Acts, no industry can excrete the waster chemicals in an environment without proper treatment. It continues to happen in industries, which look to keep their costs down, profits high, and get away without investing in treatment plants. 20% of this hazardous waste comes from the Textile industry.

This is evident in Pakistan where housing societies are registered and plots are perpetually bought and sold, even though no one actually gets to live there for decades.

Polyester fibers in our clothes are made out of the same chemical, which is used in plastic bottles. When clothes are washed, thousands of microfibers are allowed in our water bodies. All this contributes towards polluting the priceless resource and eventually endangers life. Burning of fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases, which are warming the planet. This disrupts weather patterns, water cycle and negatively affects food security.

Unchecked Urban Sprawl

Urbanization is largely driven by speculation from which both real estate tycoons and timber mafia profits. Forests are destroyed, the land is leveled, the soil is poisoned and the increased erodibility of soil degrades surface and groundwater quality. This is evident in Pakistan where housing societies are registered and plots are perpetually bought and sold, even though no one actually gets to live there for decades.

Read more: Water war between Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Unplanned urban design and expanding impervious cover makes it almost impossible for rainwater to seep through and recharge aquifers; instead, it becomes a part of the drainage. 17 MAF [million acres-foots] and 10 MAF are a manageable amount for urban households and industrial zones respectively, and can easily be met with proper investment in rainwater harvesting, aquifer restoration, and waste treatment technologies.

Unsustainable Agriculture

The common urban household is often blamed for excessive water usage, but 95% of our fresh water (104 MAF) is used in agriculture and more than half of it is abstracted from underground aquifers through tube-wells. Yet, our crop productivity is one the lowest in the world as most water thirsty crops namely wheat, rice, cotton, and sugarcane bring a mere 5% in GDP.

Moreover, the small landholders with little incentive to take risks have been moving towards mono-cropping. This lack of crop rotation can induce erosion – the same phenomenon that not only reduces soil fertility but also obstructs channels, reduces reservoir capacity, destroys riverine habitat and contaminates aquifer and downstream water.

According to the World Commission on Dams (WCD), numerous such 20th-century projects were realized without considering these risks and costs in the feasibility planning stage and even no official follow-ups in this regard.

Then, despite the announced policy of lining canals, which is direly needed, but behind targets; there is this contradictory practice of open-channel flood-irrigation, which results in a waste of water through evapotranspiration and seepage (54 MAF). The wasted amount is more than what could suffice for food security if we shift towards modern farm practices. In addition, salinity and waterlogging caused by an inefficient irrigation system, are affecting about one-third of our irrigated lands, rendering them uncultivable.

The small downtrodden farmer is already not receiving enough in returns, whereas his private industrial and big feudal counterpart is more interested in maximizing short-term profits. It is beyond logic to expect them to invest in modern and efficient technologies like laser leveling, bed furrowing, drip and micro-irrigation, direct seeding, low-energy precision sprinklers, recycling, and waste treatment plants.

Read more: Supreme Court summoning of Sindh CM highlights water crisis

Land reforms are long due, and it needs a mass social action plan to uplift and involve the farm worker in this development. Along with the reforestation plans, deforestation has to be put to halt. Indigenous research in highly productive seeds without compromise on soil rejuvenation and the adoption of less water-intensive crops have to follow.

Dam Rhetoric

The history of these storage infrastructures goes back 6000 years to the Mesopotamian civilization. They serve the purpose to store water, stop floods and generate electricity, but not all these functions can be optimized through one dam. For example, in Tarbela (Pakistan), it means to store enough water in summers to use in dry winters for irrigation, but it means not to have enough capacity to hold back summer floods.

These factors can be optimized by pre-planning numerous small dams and few large dams, using hydrogeological modeling techniques. Unfortunately, most small dams in Potohar are nonfunctional or underperforming because of administrative issues and lack of scientific planning beforehand.

This will not only resolve waterlogging and salinity, but also reduce disease outbreaks in cities, save ecological costs, prevent human displacement, and improve the quality and quantity of fresh water available to us.

Whereas, large dams, defined to have 15m height and 3 million-m3 storage capacity, come with large socioeconomic and environmental costs. According to the World Commission on Dams (WCD), numerous such 20th-century projects were realized without considering these risks and costs in the feasibility planning stage and even no official follow-ups in this regard.

Results of it are evident in Pakistan as Tarbela has lost 40% of its capacity in 43 years due to silting and sedimentation and loaned deals are signed for the refurbishment of Mangla dam’s walls. Moreover, reduction in discharge and sedimentation starvation on the downstream has resulted in sea intrusion and loss in riverine habitat. The collective storage capacity of these two dams is for 30 days and 14 MAF out of the total 145 MAF flowing through the system, providing 30 m3/capita.

Now one might argue that the overall availability of water in Pakistan has reduced to 1000 m3/capita from 5000 m3/capita in the 1940s and our storage capacity in terms of days is one-third of India and nowhere near the USA. It is true that we are storing little (8%) of the flow as compared to what is required to sustain (40%) the current irrigation network and the problem of dying delta can be dealt with equitable and consistent flow towards Indus delta throughout the year.

Read more: Pakistan’s Water Crisis makes Kalabagh an “inevitable” reality, assures CJP

Nevertheless, calling the 21 MAF, which passes into the Arabian Sea, a ‘waste’, is a gross scientific mistake which has even been committed by IRSA (Indus River System Authority) – as this freshwater flow is life for mangrove ecosystem, prevents seawater intrusion and keeps sea level from rising near the coasts.

If the proposed dams are materialized, our storage capacity will increase to 50 MAF. What is not in the policy is the 3000 MAF aquifer capacity along the river corridors. Urban Stormwater Design systems and Riparian Area Management techniques can be used in town and countryside respectively to restore groundwater while simultaneously absorbing flood flow. This will not only resolve waterlogging and salinity, but also reduce disease outbreaks in cities, save ecological costs, prevent human displacement, and improve the quality and quantity of fresh water available to us.

The construction of large dams, however, has paced in the last decade and is being championed as clean energy sources. China, Brazil, India, and Thailand are on top in this development, while Chinese companies and banks are involved in 219 such projects across 49 countries. Interests of Chinese capital are at stake here and local academics and companies fall for this trap for funds, contracts, and kickbacks.

The water crisis is not that of any absolute scarcity, but inefficient usage and mismanagement. Most of it can be solved by prioritizing small aspects of the bigger picture as discussed earlier.

So, is energy production a primary problem – no, Pakistan already has an installed production capacity of 30,000MW. However, the outmoded transmission and distribution infrastructure with an installed capacity of 22,000MW and 17% line-losses becomes a bottleneck when the demand peaks at 25,000MW.

On top of that, the power dynamics on which IPPs function helps them get away with capacity payments from governments despite them not running at their optimum. As long as the transmission infrastructure is not modernized, more watts just would not solve our electricity woes. Even then, solar and wind would be more socioeconomically viable alternatives for the future.

Conclusion

The water crisis is not that of any absolute scarcity, but inefficient usage and mismanagement. Most of it can be solved by prioritizing small aspects of the bigger picture as discussed earlier. Today, we have modern technologies like satellite remote sensing and IoT, which can be used for smart monitoring, distribution, and management of our water resources.

Read more: Looming water crisis, economy at stake: WEF warns Pakistan

For that, academicians have to work in solidarity to bridge the gap between academia and industry and come up with integrated, holistic and sustainable solutions. But this action from below has to make sure that policies are devised for the needs of the people and the local geographies while maintaining a symbiotic relationship with nature. People and the planet have to be put before profits and private interests if we are to survive as a species.

Ahmad Ammar is studying Geoinformatics. He is a post-capitalist, climate-justice, and right to the city activist. He can be reached at ahmadammargeo@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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