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Sunday, February 18, 2024

Will ‘Safe Water’ lead Pakistan’s Fight against COVID-19?

This year, millions of people will remain without access to safe water around the globe, and millions will die due to lack of it. In one of the most climate sensitive nations today, it is sad to see the poor state of policy making when it comes to major challenges being faced by the country vis-a-vis access to safe water for populations.

Water: Most important commodity on earth

Whether you are washing clothes or taking a bath, feeding your children or cooking a meal, gardening or swimming, having tea or just simply washing your hands (the single most effective preventable measure against COVID-19), what is the one and only thing you need to survive at home in 2020? The answer is: Water.

As the world struggles to find solutions to fight the battle against COVID-19, the struggle for safe and clean water becomes vital for every society. Scores of people coming out of quarantine are facing dire challenges, seeking better health care and livelihoods.

The climate crisis has added on to their woes as despite massive rains in the past weeks, cities remain handicapped. Most of the rain water was not stored nor harvested for future consumption.

In the absence of a certified vaccine against COVID-19, clean and safe water is the first line of defense.

Read more: Reaping the economic dividends of Mangrove conservation

Need for safe water will exceed everything else 

In all of this, billions of people will remain under self-imposed lockdowns at home and maintain ‘sensible social distance’ while ensuring maximum water supply for daily survival. For most nations, the need for water will exceed everything else on the planet.

Whether it is fossil fuels, coal mining, hydropower, or simple drinking water, the need to produce, conserve and distribute water for survival is the biggest challenge for Pakistan.

For over 2 billion worldwide, there are no toilets. For a greater number more, there is no safe water to even wash hands. By 2030, over 200 million people in Pakistan would run out of safe water. This raises the major question: Will Pakistan become ‘waterless’?

Will Pakistan become ‘waterless’? 

In the recent past, Pakistan has seen more and more talks about dams and reservoirs, increased natural disasters, more poverty, endless water treaties, water calamities, deforestation, and food insecurity.

All of these severe issues are primarily due to a ‘lack of actionable policy decision’ on meeting the growing demand for water. Crisis management initiatives being led by past governments have failed miserably to come up with a single-point agenda for this water-starved nation.

Read More: Well done with trees! But what about water governance?

Elsewhere in the country, efforts by the media watchdogs to uncover the true face of the ‘water mafia’ have also failed. There have been many media trails in Pakistan leading to possible investigations, falling short of convictions when it comes to punishing the culprits. This  “water mafia” continues to extract illegal monies from the poor populations, now further burdened by heavy costs of living and a possible recession, in the wake of the ongoing COVID19.

No judicial breakthrough has been achieved on this issue till date.

In rural Pakistan, majority of the agricultural lands are powered by the elite, leaving little in the hands of the poor farmers and their families – facing massive food, water and shelter challenges.

The ‘water trail’ is becoming exceedingly tedious and dangerous due to heavy corruption in this sector. Whether it is the province of Sindh, Punjab, KP or Baluchistan, the water woes continue to exist. With fears of a second pandemic, the water safety and security concerns have multiplied.

Urban cities constantly short of water 

Big cities like Karachi are constantly short of water despite being the economic artery of the country. The blame goes to the Federal Government for failing to implement a Nation-wide water policy.

On provincial government levels, implementation of the 18th amendment has also been a big failure, to provide adequate health care for the majority, with its primary source being lack of provision of clean and safe drinking water to the general public.

According to the 1991 water accord, it has already been decided that the downstream water supply to rural and urban populations in the Sind province would be mandatory, until a comprehensive and authentic survey was to determine otherwise as the majority of the 3 million people living in coastal zones close to the Arabian Sea are the most impacted.

The Indus Delta – 7th largest data basin in the world- is on the verge of depletion impacting coastal cities, including Karachi. We require a minimum 10 MAF (Million Acre Feet) of water to reduce the shortage of water within the Indus Delta basin. It has resulted in rising sea water inundating 2.7 million acres of fertile land.  Karachi for example, needs around 835 MGD (million gallons per day) of water, while the city is supplied only 10% of the total water supply.

Read More: Indo-Pak water dispute: World Bank shuns Pakistan

Where does the rest of the water go? Stolen or wasted?  

Note here that over 35% of the water supply is stolen through different forms of organized crime – through illegal hydrants, home suction devices or through mafia control in highly populated areas, where water is being sold at a very high commercial price, while the consumer is getting no water through the water pipelines.

Moreover, sewage has started to penetrate the water lines, contaminating the water supply and resulting in excessive risk of hazardous chemicals and disease in the water. The Monsoon rains have further destroyed the water-infrastructure, exposing the weakness in governance and administration of water (storage, accessibility and equitable distribution).

The rising cost of plastic pollution due to  excess usage of bottled water is due to lack of tap water provision for big city populations where the local governments have miserably failed to give water access to the taxpayers as a basic ‘human right’.

Read More: Water is the New Gold: An Emerging Source of Global Conflicts

This cost is mostly borne by the majority of the middle and lower income groups, being forced to buy bottled water at heavy prices. Our people remain unaware about the fact that in days to come, the bottled water will only be affordable for the privileged class.

Moreover, 15% of the water coming to the city is being used for washing cars, as it is not drinkable or usable for cooking, as this is ground water which is brackish and unfit for human consumption.

Safe Water: Scarcity is a reality 

The COVID-19 crisis has forced the majority to stand up and take notice. Water crisis is a reality. Future rains are imminent and if we do not take stock on harvesting and storing rainwater, we may reach a ‘critical level’ of water scarcity affecting millions of households.

Post COVID -19, every household is expected to use more water as a safeguard against the pandemic and increased focus on ‘cleanliness and sanitization’.

If the government allows the water mafia to thrive, the entire population could be at a risk of famine and an eventual “water war”. Water companies must not be allowed to take advantage of the situation today. Not to mention here that simply making money over water may be capitalistic gain for the elite groups but may throw huge pockets of population into debt, poverty and even death.

Very soon, we may end up importing water from other countries and may even be driven to an economic epidemic. Stealing ‘water’ must now be declared as a ‘major theft’ of state natural resources.

Read More: MPCL invests Rs. 4 million in rehabilitation of water plants in Islamabad

Are we reaching a critical level ‘water crisis’ ? Yes. 

Safe water is a major weapon against COVID19. Pakistan must ensure a comprehensive solution to “water” on war-footings as the biggest challenge for the nation.

The author is an environmentalist & change maker, with over 20 years of expertise in Media, Education and Banking sectors. He is the founder and director of Children Nature Network Asia, a leading advocacy and training initiative operating across Asia. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.