Water shortfalls may be seasonal, temporary or cyclical, and as such can be overcome in due course when nature becomes more benevolent. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Pakistan where water resources have been under severe stress for a long time.
The downturn continues and the country is now on the brink of water scarcity — availability in 2005 stood at a mere 1,100 cubic metres per capita. Let’s put this into perspective. A country is classified as water-stressed when annual supply dips below 1,700 cubic metres per person, and is said to face water scarcity below the 1,000 cubic metres per person mark. The situation wasn’t always so dire in Pakistan: per capita water supply stood at a robust 5,000 cubic metres in 1951.
It has since plummeted by almost 80 per cent and, according to WWF Pakistan, could drop to as little as 700 cubic metres per capita by 2025.Demand has so dramatically outstripped supply for a number of reasons. These include an ever-burgeoning population, the absence of integrated water management, irrational use and lack of awareness of the need to conserve. Wasteful farming techniques, leakages in the irrigation network, climate change and the over-exploitation or pollution of natural aquifers and other water bodies also rank among the major culprits. At the same time, little attention has been paid to rain harvesting and the storage of seasonal flood waters.
It is said that future conflicts will be rooted in disputes over water. Take the case of Pakistan and India. Tensions related to water-sharing are nothing new in the subcontinent but they received fresh impetus with the construction of Baglihar Dam in Indian-held Kashmir. Last year Pakistan demanded compensation for reduced water supplies, which apparently hurt agricultural productivity in this country. But the potential for conflict runs deep and is not limited to states taking on other states.
Within nations, downstream users may accuse upper riparians of stealing their water and thus their rights and livelihoods. This has long been a simmering issue in Pakistan, one that has stoked the fires of nationalism and increased the trust deficit between provinces. Water-related issues can also pit village against village, clan against clan and farmer against farmer. From the international stage to rivalry between individuals, the potential for conflict exists at every level.
We are not only wasting but also contaminating our water, thereby reducing its usability. Untreated industrial and domestic effluent is being discharged into water bodies and pesticides from farms are finding their way into streams and groundwater. Water quality is as important as its quantity because it affects the health of the nation, the productivity of its workforce and the arability of its land. Our policymakers must rise from their slumber and grasp the linkages between the adequate availability of clean water and social and economic development.