Running on Empty: Pakistan's Water Crisis

New Asia Program Report Finds Water Situation Deeply Troubling, But Offers Recommendations

Sep 15, 2009

"Water shortages," warns South Asia scholar Anatol Lieven, "present the greatest future threat to the viability of Pakistan as a state and a society."

This warning may be overstated, but Pakistan's water situation is deeply troubling, as described in a new report from the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program, Running on Empty: Pakistan's Water Crisis.

Water availability has plummeted from about 5,000 m3 per capita in the early 1950s to less than 1,500 m3 per capita today. As Simi Kamal reports in the first chapter of Running on Empty, Pakistan is expected to become "water-scarce" (below 1,000 m3 per capita) by 2035—though some experts project this could happen in 2020, if not earlier.

In an unstable nation like Pakistan, water shortages can easily become security threats. In April 2009, alarm bells sounded when the Taliban pushed southeast of Swat into the Buner district of the Northwest Frontier Province. Not only is Buner close to Islamabad, it lies just 60 kilometers from the prized Tarbela Dam, which provides Pakistan with billions of cubic meters of precious water for irrigation each year.

Soaked, Salty, Dirty, and Dry

According to Kamal, Pakistan faces significant and widespread water challenges:

• Inefficient irrigation.
• Abysmal urban sanitation.
• Catastrophic environmental degradation.
• Lack of water laws to define water rights.
• Lack of a sound policy on large dams.

An arid country dependent on agriculture, Pakistan allocates more than 90 percent of its water resources to irrigation and other agricultural needs. Unfortunately, intensive irrigation and poor drainage practices have waterlogged and salinized the soil.

Women and Water in Rural Pakistan

Rural women and small farmers are particularly affected by Pakistan's water crisis. Women bear the primary responsibility for obtaining water, but have been traditionally been shut out of government water-planning and decision-making processes. However, government and media initiatives, described by Sarah Halvorson in Running on Empty's chapter on water and gender, are increasingly highlighting the importance of women's participation.

Meanwhile, Adrien Couton reports that Islamabad's water projects mainly benefit large and wealthy farmers—even though Pakistan has approximately four million farms smaller than two hectares.

Pakistan's Thirsty Cities

With most of Pakistan's water dedicated to agriculture, less than 10 percent is left for drinking water and sanitation. A quarter of Pakistanis lack access to safe drinking water—and many of them reside in the country's teeming cities.

Worse, the drinking water that does exist is quickly disappearing. Lahore, which relies on groundwater, faces water table declines of up to 65 feet, as described by Anita Chaudhry and Rabia M. Chaudhry in their chapter on the city.

The scarcity of clean water in the cities—exacerbated by a lack of wastewater treatment—is a leading cause of deadly epidemics. At least 30,000 Karachiites (of whom 20,000 are children) perish each year from unsafe water.

Pakistan Must Act Now To Solve the Water Crisis

Pakistan arguably has the technological and financial resources to provide clean water. So what's the hold-up? In her chapter on public health, Samia Altaf argues that the problem is the absence of a strong political lobby to advocate for water—and that no one holds Islamabad accountable for fixing the problem.

The report offers more recommendations for addressing Pakistan's water crisis:

• Invest in existing infrastructure and in modest, indigenous technology.
• Strike appropriate balances between centralized and decentralized management.
• Devote more attention to water allocation and distribution on local/individual levels.
• Understand the links between agricultural and urban water pressures.
• Embrace the role of the private sector.
• Conserve by favoring water-saving technology; less water-intensive crops; and water-conserving urban building design.
• Address structural obstacles like systemic inequality and gender discrimination.
• Take immediate action. Tremendous population growth and rapidly melting glaciers in the Himalayas ensure that the crisis will deepen before it eases.

The need for immediate action cannot be overstated. While Pakistan's water crisis may not threaten its viability, it is undeniable that so long as the crisis rages on, essential components of the nation—such as the vital agricultural economy, the health of the population, and political and economic stability—lie very much in the balance.

Michael Kugelman is the Wilson Center's South Asia specialist. He is co-editor, with Robert M. Hathaway, of the recently published Wilson Center book Running on Empty: Pakistan's Water Crisis, on which this post is based. Much of his work has focused on resource shortages in Pakistan and India.

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