Feb 21, 2011

In the pipeline

Absence of proper planning and documentation makes water management poor in both rural and urban areas

By Aoun Sahi

Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. According to a World Bank report, the per capita water availability in 1951 in Pakistan was 5,000 cubic meters per annum, which is now less than 1100 cubic meters.

Scarcity of water is not the only issue, unavailability of safe drinking water and provision of proper sanitation and sewerage facilities are also major issues making the problem more complex. Punjab, which is home to around 90 million population is among the most problematic areas of the country. According to official data, around 50 percent (44 million) population in Punjab is consuming contaminated water.

Groundwater, which is the main source of water supply, is rapidly depleting because of extensive water pumping. This is so because of lack of property rights over water usage and an absence of regulation to assign these rights. In fact, at present, there is no law in our province regarding use or abuse of drinking water. The majority of existing laws are related to irrigation water. The source of water is also being polluted by different industrial as well as agricultural activities.

Experts believe drinking water distribution system and sanitation infrastructure in most part of the province are also outdated. They are posing real threat to the health of common people in Pakistan. In many cities of Punjab, including Lahore, it has been found that water quality at the source is fit for drinking but when it reaches consumers through depleted infrastructure, it becomes hazardous for health.

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) released a report titled, “Pakistan’s Water at Risk” in October 2009, which states that major cities of Punjab are exposed to high levels of arsenic. “85 percent of the samples from different areas of Punjab are found unfit for human consumption. Only one percent of wastewater was treated by industries before being discharged into rivers and drains,” the report says.

The report also says the level of compliance to law related to drinking water and environment is extremely low. The environment and water laws do not clearly define the roles and responsibilities of different departments working on these sectors. Unregulated groundwater abstraction is the cause of water depletion. There are no clear guidelines, rules or regulations for groundwater abstraction.

Surprisingly, there are also no surface water classification standards in the country. “Such rules and regulations must be established at the earliest”, says Hammad Naqi Khan, Director Freshwater and Toxics Programme of WWF. He thinks strong law enforcement and compliance are necessary for the protection of freshwater resources and thus the health of people. “Approximately, 60 percent of infant deaths are due to water-borne diseases in our country. Thirty percent of all reported cases of illness like hepatitis, diarrhea, typhoid and dysentery and 40 percent of deaths in Pakistan are attributed to water-born diseases. One hundred million cases of diarrhea are being registered for treatment in hospitals of Pakistan each year,” he explains.

After the 18th Amendment in the Constitution of Pakistan water and environment have become subject of the provinces. It is now up to provincial assemblies to do proper legislation on the subject. Punjab government has been trying to take a lead on the issue of developing water policy. The government has set target for the attainment of Millennium Development Goals for improved water supply coverage in the province. Under this programme, 80 percent urban population and 64.65 percent rural population will be provided safe drinking water facility till 2015.

In 2009, chief minister Punjab formed a committee to develop water act for the province. The new act will define the role of different stakeholders both in the private and public sectors. According to the act, a regulatory authority comprising technocrats, public representatives and administrators will be made to ensure the implementation of minimum standards of drinking water and sanitation. The act will fix the responsibility of different departments and authorities regarding checking the availability of clean drinking water, provision of sanitation and sewerage facilities and checking the different sectors responsible for pollution of water.

The first draft of the water act was prepared in November 2009. In April 2010, the second and final draft of the act was prepared after making consultations with different stakeholders. The draft is now with the office of Punjab chief minister. It needs to be presented before the cabinet first for its approval and then to the assembly to make it an act.

Dr Nasir Javed, project director of Punjab Urban Unit is one of the brains behind the draft of Punjab municipal water Act 2010. He believes drinking water is going to be the most important problem for us in future if not properly managed, “There is no law or authority to address the issues related to drinking water. This is the first attempt of its kind and will help establishing a complete water management system in the province.” He tells TNS if ground water of cities in the province keeps on depleting without any check, government will have to bring canal water and treat that which is a very expensive option. “All the stakeholders will have their representation in the water commission and advisory body that will allow evolving a balanced water management system,” he says.

The draft proposes formation of a municipal water commission that would be responsible for regulating conservation, protection, utilisation, development of water resources, and water services. The act also makes it essential for every service provider to treat the waste water before discharging it. The act also defines a fine not exceeding Rs50,000 or an imprisonment of maximum of one year for appropriation of municipal water without a water permit and imprisonment, on unauthorised obstruction of a canal or waterway or failure by any person to furnish information required by the water commission in 30 days.

A fine of Rs5 million or imprisonment of maximum six years can be awarded to someone for distribution of municipal water for public consumption which adversely affects the health and safety of the public. Similar punishment can be awarded for dumping industrial waste into river or waterway without permission.

Aamir Butt, a member of Punjab Urban Resource Center believes the act is a good attempt for evolving a proper water management system in the province, albeit with some constraints, “The law does not take up the issue of capacity building. The government should first focus on capacity building of the existing departments because with the present infrastructure and manpower it will not be easy to promulgate this law,” he says adding that representation of civil society organisations and academia should also be made essential in water commission and advisory body.

Nazir Wattoo, President Anjuman Samaji Behbood Faisalabad and chairman of the committee formed by Punjab government for preparation of draft of Water Act, admits that there are issues not taken up in the draft, “The presentation of four secretaries of different government departments in the water commission is itself a problem. It should be made clear whether water act is to be finalised by the local government ordinance 2001 or 2010 because the municipal limits are described differently in both the ordinances. An awareness campaign should also be launched about the act, otherwise it is not likely to make much difference like other legislations on the subject,” he tells TNS.

Wattoo thinks making an act is a good step towards sustainability of water resources and provision of services to the people, “But the main issue that needs to be addressed in water and sanitation sector is absence of proper planning, documentation, and management. Documentation of investments has not been carried out. In the absence of this documentation, rational economic solutions at the town and city level cannot be developed. It is because of the absence of mapping that treatment plants have been placed far away from locations where sewage is actually disposed of,” he says adding that physical infrastructure for water and sanitation should be mapped in the city, tehsil/town and union council levels for urban and rural areas.

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