Two weeks ago a minor water crisis hit Pakistan. The flow in rivers fell below agricultural requirements. Then temperatures rose, glaciers melted, and river flows increased threefold, evading a disaster.
“Had the temperatures not increased for another 10-15 days, we wouldn’t have been able to give the required amount of water to the provinces,” said Mohammad Khalid Rana, the Indus Water Regulatory Authority spokesman.
That would have meant a delay in planting crops like cotton, sugarcane, and rice.
The fluctuation in river flows, blamed mostly on climate change, was not unprecedented. Nor was it unexpected. Yet its solution does not appear to be in the works, for the near future.
“If we want to ensure our food security and meet our climate change challenges, we’ll have to increase our water storage on a war footing,” warns Rana.
Even though Rana works for a government agency, his warnings appear to be making little difference in policy, according to independent water experts.
Pakistan started off as a water affluent country in 1947, with per capita availability of renewable water at more than 5,000 cubic meters, to the verge of becoming water stressed, with per capita availability down to almost 1,000 cubic meters. Mainly due to an explosive growth in population that now stands at an estimated 190 million people.
“Nobody in this country is doing anything to slow down the rate of population growth,” complained Shafqat Kakakhel, a former ambassador who has worked extensively on water related issues. “All other countries that were notorious for high population growth rates, Bangladesh, Subsaharan Africa, have done something ... we are doing absolutely nothing.”
More than 90 percent of Pakistan’s water resources are used in agriculture, which is much higher than the global average of 70 percent. The high consumption of water is blamed on outdated irrigation systems, loss of water during transmission, and the choice of crops.
Pakistan mainly grows wheat, rice and sugar cane, which are all water intensive and some say the wrong choice for its agrarian economy.
“There is absolutely no justification in Pakistan for sugarcane,” according to Kakakhel. “Sugarcane is like growing trees, like growing a forest, in the amount of water it consumes. And the rate of recovery, the amount of sugar you get from a litre of sugarcane juice is the lowest in the world.”
Another water and energy expert Arshad Abbasi insisted Pakistan’s problem is less of resources and more of management of resources.
“More than 86 countries of the world are surviving on less water than us,” he said. They are doing so through efficient water management as well as modernizing their agriculture, he added.
“Over the next 10 years, the way the crops are becoming hybrid internationally, our farmers will not be able to compete,” he cautioned.
Giving an example of Indian Punjab, with topography similar to Pakistani Punjab, Abbasi explains Indian agricultural yield was two to three times higher than Pakistan.
Pakistani farmers' irrigation systems also require an unnecessarily high amount of water.
Fields are flooded with water from canals or tube wells. Other water scarce countries have moved to drip irrigation systems or sprinkler systems that use much less water. In addition, the waterways built to transport water from rivers are not lined, leading to transmission losses of up to 40 percent.
The problem also exists in modern cities, like Islamabad that was designed and built only half a century ago. Abbasi said mismanagement of water during transmission leads to 60 percent leakage in the capital.
Adding to the difficulties is the fact the country has not increased its water storage capacity for several decades.
“You get 145 million acre feet of water throughout the year in your rivers, 70-80 percent of that water comes during only 70 days of Monsoon, July, August and 10 days of September,” according to Rana of IRSA. “If you don’t have the capacity to carry over that water for the rest of the 295 days, you will always be in trouble.”
Farmers make up for the shortage by extracting water from the ground. In his analysis published in Development Advocate Pakistan, a UNDP funded publication, Shahid Ahmad, a water resources development and management expert, wrote Pakistan has around one million tube wells and any use beyond 10 percent of groundwater will result in rapid lowering of the water table.”
In the past 40 years, he added, groundwater contribution to agriculture has doubled and now provides 47 percent of water available to farms.
But the government complains of a lack of funds.
One major storage project, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam on River Indus, has been approved for almost a decade. But work on the almost $14 billion project was stalled because Pakistan failed to acquire funds from international financial agencies.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif approved a plan last December to raise domestic funding for the dam and ordered physical work to be started before the end of 2017. Construction of such projects usually takes 8-10 years. The dam was originally supposed to come online in 2019.