Aug 22, 2009

Water shortage greatest threat to Pakistan

book By Anwar Iqbal

Author Michael Kugelman argues that ‘while this assertion may be overblown, one can hardly dispute its underlying premise’.

The book points out that Pakistan’s water situation is extremely precarious. Water availability has plummeted from about 5,000 cubic metres per capita in the early 1950s to less than 1,500 per capita today.

According to 2008 data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Pakistan’s total water availability per capita ranks dead last in a list of 26 Asian countries and the United States.

The book warns that Pakistan is expected to become water-scarce (the designation of a country with annual water availability below 1,000 cubic metres per capita) by 2035, though some experts say this may happen as soon as 2020, if not earlier.

Mr Kugelman, a programme associate with the Asia Programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, warns that several dramatic demographic shifts are intensifying Pakistan’s already-rampant water insecurity.

The book notes that at least 90 per cent of Pakistan’s dwindling water resources are allocated to irrigation and other agricultural needs. This is not entirely surprising, given that Pakistan is an overwhelmingly arid country with an agriculture-dependent economy.

Unfortunately, however, intensive irrigation regimes and poor drainage practices have caused waterlogging and soil salinity throughout Pakistan’s countryside. As a result, vast expanses of the nation’s rich agricultural lands are too wet or salty to yield any meaningful harvests.

With the lion’s share of Pakistan’s limited water supplies dedicated to agriculture, less than 10 per cent is left for drinking water and sanitation.

The book notes that some of the starkest manifestations of the crisis can be found in the parched regions of Sindh. As the country’s population has surged, large volumes of water from the Indus have been diverted upstream to Punjab to satisfy soaring demand for agriculture and for consumption in cities.

‘Consequently, downstream in Sindh, the once-mighty Indus has shrunk to a canal, and in some areas shrivelled up to little more than a puddle.’

The river’s disappearance throughout much of Sindh, the book argues, has snuffed out livelihoods throughout the river delta, particularly those of fishermen — who are now forced to gather firewood for a living and to buy their water (at high cost) from trucks.

The book quotes one Pakistani environmentalist as lamenting how the Indus Delta is suffering through ‘severe degradation’, sparking ‘coastal poverty, hopelessness, and despair’, causing great damage to the delta’s mangroves and destroying entire ecosystems.

Perhaps the most powerful accelerant of Pakistan’s water crisis is global warming. The Indus River Basin — Pakistan’s chief water source — obtains its water stocks from the snows and rains of the western Himalayas. However, few — if any — areas of the world are suffering from the effects of climate change as much as this legendary mountain region.

Many of its glaciers are already thinning by up to a metre per year. This rapid melting pattern — coupled with another consequence of global warming, high-intensity precipitation — is expected to aggravate river flooding. Once the glaciers have melted, river flows are expected to decrease dramatically.

What does this entail for Pakistan? According to the World Bank, it means an exacerbation of the ‘already serious problems’ of flooding and poor drainage in the Indus Basin over the next 50 years, followed by up to a ‘terrifying’ 30-40 per cent drop in river flows in 100 years’ time.

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