Pakistan: Water Crisis is a Regional Political Challenge

Analysis05.03.2020Birgit Lamm
Flooded Road in Pakistan

Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has faced many political and economic challenges. Among others, one of the major and long-term challenges for Pakistan is neither extremism nor terrorism, but the lethal combination of climate change and a rapidly growing population. Both these issues are influencing water resource- scarcity on the one hand and monsoon flash floods on the other.

During the August 2019 Sindh floods, the urban areas of Hyderabad and Karachi  were effected badly. According to news reports, more than ten people died in Karachi, several of them by electrocution as the electricity supply infrastructure was damaged. Such disasters highlight the fact that Pakistan is not a water-stressed country but a country with poor water resource management and distribution systems. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), Pakistan has supported local organisations in understanding the resource governance issues by collaborating with the Karachi-based organization, Shehri- Citizens for a Better Environment (Shehri-CBE). Since the 1980s, when virtually no one talked about climate change or environmental issues, the activists of Shehri-CBE campaigned for the protection of green and public spaces in the greater Karachi area and the Indus delta.

Pakistan’s water supply depends nearly exclusively on the waters of the Indus Basin and rainfalls. Contrary to prevalent public opinion, the actual water supply has not declined. It is rather the rapidly growing population, which causes a rising demand for more and more water. According to recently published World Bank data, Pakistan’s population increased at the rate of 2.1% in 2018, whereas India’s population growth rate was only 1% and Bangladesh’s was 1.1% in the same period. This makes Pakistan demographically the fastest growing country in South Asia. This challenge is aggravated by problems of water distribution, infrastructure and water use.

Ninety per cent of Pakistan’s water is used in agriculture due to the use of out-dated and inefficient methods of irrigation. The traditional flood-irrigation method wastes a lot of water to evaporation and deteriorates the quality of soil in the long run. Pakistan’s irrigation system dates to the colonial era when it was built by the British. The irrigation system has not been adequately maintained or modernized since then. Around 40-50% of water supply is lost in the out-dated canal and pipe systems. There is a dire need for modernising both infrastructure  and the traditional irrigation methods.

Water related infrastructure projects have also met similar fate. The World Bank funded large dam projects of Mangala, Talaba and Kalabagh in Punjab were meant to meet Pakistan’s growing demand of energy and water. Instead, they have made things worse for the southern province of Sindh, because the people living in Sindh receive less water to fulfil their needs. Furthermore, the fertile sediments- needed as agricultural fertilizers- are stuck in the northern reservoirs and the long-term quality of the soil deteriorates. The low water levels in the Indus cause the water from the Arabian Sea to flood the mangroves of the Indus delta and subsequently destroy them. The globally rising sea levels have accelerated this process. It is therefore, not surprising that the water issue is a major line of conflict between the two neighbouring provinces of Punjab and Sindh. Shehri-CBE has been greatly concerned about the low water levels of Indus river and the entry of seawater into the mangroves. They have been involved in reforestation campaigns to rescue the mangroves.

In 2010, eighteenth amendment to the constitution of Pakistan was passed which  created further issues of governance and coordination between different departments due to lack of pre-planning. The amendment was aimed at the devolution of powers. However, this well-intentioned approach led to  double structures and unclear responsibilities on all levels of government in Pakistan. Responsibilities for drinking water, sanitation, irrigation,  and urban water management lie with different authorities, which makes coordination extremely difficult. In 2018, the Ministry of Water Resources drafted a National Water Policy framework, which mentioned no less than 14 different authorities or public programmes involved in  water management, which needed consolidation of some kind. 

All the above problems are a reflection of resource management issues confronted by Pakistan. These issues are now exacerbated with the ever growing threat of climate crises. This is why the recent announcement of PM Khan to initiate a plan to save the rivers is very timely. The rivers are Pakistan’s life line, which needs to be safeguarded by all means.

The issue of water is not limited to Pakistan but extends to South Asia and could be a major cause of unrest in the region. Since the Indus river system originates in the Himalayas, the survival of Pakistan and vast regions of India depends on the political ability to come to new, regional agreements on water distribution among India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The disputed Kashmir region, holds important water reserves for South Asia. The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 was a milestone for a constructive mutual agreement on water sharing, which according to researchers and water specialists needs an update urgently. A fair regional sharing of water resources and trust in its implementation are crucial for South Asia’s future. However, the current political tensions in the region leave little hope that this might happen soon.