Events

Water Crises in China and Pakistan

June 12, 2002 // 12:00am
Event Co-sponsors: 
Environmental Change and Security Program

Featuring: Naser Faruqi, International Development Research Centre; Ma Jun, South China Morning Post (SCMP.com); Sylvana Li, U.S. Department of Agriculture (Discussant)

By Timothy Hildebrandt and Jennifer L. Turner

The People's Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have enjoyed close relations since being founded (a mere two years apart) a half century ago. Described by the Chinese foreign ministry as "good all-weather friends," the close ties between China and Pakistan are exemplified by strong trade relations and the sharing of missile technology—their relationship has been brought closer, and military exchanges made more relevant, by mutual conflict with India. While their cooperation has been shaped by tensions and conflict with India, China and Pakistan both are being threatened by a potentially bigger crisis domestically—water scarcity. Naser Faruqi, International Development Research Centre and Ma Jun, SCMP.com, profiled the water crises in Pakistan and China at this 12 June 2002 meeting at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

The water crises facing Pakistan and China are strikingly similar—both suffer from water shortages, caused in great part by antiquated irrigation methods and inefficient, uneconomical farming. In both countries growing water pollution problems threaten human and ecological health. The Chinese and Pakistan governments have, thus far, been rather shortsighted in dealing with their water crises, preferring to search for new water sources in lieu of changing consumption patterns. In addition to posing threats to economic development, human health, and ecological quality, water problems have spurred migrations of farmers into the cities. As both Pakistan and China face challenges of regime legitimacy, neither can afford the economic or political instability posed by worsening water problems. Beyond simply identifying the problems, Naser Faruqi and Ma Jun outlined similar strategies to mitigate the water crises in the two countries.

Another Problem for Pakistan
The Pakistani government is currently combating numerous political, economic, and social problems—conflicts with India over Kashmir, refugees from Afghanistan, high population growth, and severe poverty problems. While not necessarily front-page news, water scarcity is growing in Pakistan. Though heavily dependent on one river system, the Indus River, Pakistan has not always suffered from water scarcity. During the country's infancy, water availability was quite high at 5,600 cubic meters per person. This abundance of five decades ago plummeted to just 1,000 cubic meters water availability per person today. The water crisis in Pakistan is of particular concern, according to Naser Faruqi, because water plays an integral role in the country's economy—ninety percent of the agricultural output, representing one-quarter of the GDP, is reliant upon irrigation water while almost half of Pakistan's energy is hydroelectric. Additionally, Pakistan's water crisis has several serious health, social, and political implications.

Health implications: The serious water shortages in Pakistan have had a great impact on the health of the general population. Today 12 percent of Pakistanis have no access to improved water sources while 39 percent are without sanitation facilities. Dr. Faruqi noted that these shortcomings force people to consume polluted drinking water, which will increase the incidence of waterborne diseases. More pressing, perhaps, is the lack of water for irrigation purposes. Grain production is expected to fall short 11 million tons by 2010 and nearly 16 million tons by 2020. If the economy continues to falter, importing food to make up for agricultural shortfalls will not be an option—famine-like conditions may very well become a harsh reality.

Social implications: As the water supply in the Indus River continues to dwindle, seawater has begun to make its way into the delta, spoiling irrigated land and aquifers. Such water degradation and shortages decimate farms and spur mass migrations to major Pakistani cities. Most problematic, according to Dr. Faruqi, has been the pressure such population movement places upon urban infrastructure. Similar to the situation in China, such migrants in the cities are often subject to discrimination and economic hardships.

Political Implications: Eco-refugees, those citizens who have fled drought or infertile farmland for major urban areas, potentially contribute to an already unstable political situation in Pakistan. Massive population movements are, Dr. Faruqi noted, almost inherently unstable. In the case of Pakistan, however, the fight over ever decreasing water resources may prove even more threatening. During a severe drought in 2001, for example, rioters protesting drinking water shortages smashed windows and overturned cars in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi. In light of growing discontent over government cooperation with the United States in the "war against terror," not to mention the questionable means employed by Perez Musharraff in his effort to secure another presidential term, conflict caused by the water crisis is a destabilizing force that the present regime cannot afford.

As evidence of the government's awareness of the far-reaching implications of the water crisis, Dr. Faruqi cited some examples of Pakistani government initiatives:


  • Two of the fourteen core areas of activities within the broad National Conservation Strategy (established in 1992) focus on water: irrigation efficiency and watershed protection;
  • In 2001, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Council approved a National Environmental Action Plan that included a major focus on clean water;
  • Provincial Irrigation and Drainage Authorities were formed in Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan to improve irrigation management; and,
  • The national-level Water and Power Development Authority has focused on building new canals and dams, extending irrigation networks, and reclaiming land damaged by water logging or salinity.


Though this growing government attention on the water crisis is commendable, Naser Faruqi is disappointed by the "gap between rhetoric and reality." The government continues to ignore the great depth of the problem, and therefore the initiatives put into action are shortsighted and often misguided. Most disturbing to Dr. Faruqi is the reluctance to employ true water conservation measures to reduce overall demand and change water consumption patterns. Instead the government simply "is just dreaming of more water to tap." Integral for alleviating the water crisis in Pakistan is the need for education of the populous and involvement of the key stakeholders within the government, landlord, and religious communities who oppose water conservation. In short, Pakistan will need to undergo a broad paradigm shift to move onto a sustainable water use path.

Decreasing Population Growth
At the root of Pakistan's water crisis is, according to Naser Faruqi, an uneducated populous, unaware of the danger water shortages pose for the country. Pakistan's adult literacy rate is 45 percent, well below most of its neighbors and almost half China's 81 percent, a number that Pakistan could "only dream of." High illiteracy makes water conservation education a difficult task. A largely illiterate population also has stymied efforts to curb uninterrupted population growth (2.5 percent annually). Dr. Faruqi noted in this meeting (and in his recently published book Water Management in Islam that most Pakistanis believe Islam forbids family planning. Though, in reality, this is not the case. A great number of Pakistanis are unable to read the Quran and dispel the myth for themselves. An increase of the adult literacy rate would likely lower the birthrate, for literacy increases contraception use and educated women tend to delay having children. Simply stated, a smaller population inherently consumes less water, a smaller population educated in the dangers of the water problems and means to avoid it, consumes even less.

Involving Key Stakeholders
In his discussion of solutions to Pakistan's water problems, Dr. Faruqi addressed the role of three key stakeholders in Pakistani society: landlords, clergy, and the government. The two largest roadblocks to solving the water crisis are landlords and conservative clergy. Landlords who own the sugar and cotton mills view efforts to conserve water as threats to irrigated agriculture, which has been the mainstay of their power. Therefore, it will be key to educate these landlords (as well as small farmers) how they could achieve equal or higher yields using water conservation methods. Uneducated clergy who oppose family planning and education for woman also often believe water is from God and should therefore be free. These conservative clergy hold considerable influence in Pakistan, thus educating the clergy as to the value of water conservation will be vital in moving the country toward more sustainable water use practices. The government also could play a particularly intriguing role as an agent for change. The current military dictatorship could actually use its great strength and power to improve the water situation. Much like the Chinese government, the Pakistani government possesses the power to effect great change, very quickly.

In addition to educating the public and softening resistance to water conservation, Dr. Faruqi argued that Pakistan needs a broad paradigm shift to rescue itself from the water crisis—moving away from the supply management mindset to one that emphasizes demand management; evolving from an irrigation needy agrarian society to one more industrial, and promoting peace and food self-sufficiency at a regional level. In terms of food production, Pakistan's insistence on agricultural self-sufficiency at any cost must be reevaluated. Some kinds of crop production often does not make financial sense—importing sugar cane from Cuba, for example, is half the cost of producing it "in-house." This major shift would also involve a departure from harvesting the traditional crops of rice, wheat, and cotton in favor of less water-intensive crops. As part of this new paradigm, the Pakistani government needs to reevaluate its role in the region and its relationship with India. A less contentious existence with its neighbor could very well directly improve the water crisis if the two countries undertake joint research and share cross border flow forecasting. Over the long term funds diverted from arms budgets could be used to improve education and water conservation throughout the region. Regional cooperation on water already has a strong foundation in the 1960 Pakistan-Indian Indus River Treaty..

Paradoxical Crises: The Case of China
China is plagued by two paradoxical water crises—northern China suffers from regular drought while floods beleaguer the south. Water scarcity in the Yellow River is symptomatic of a greater problem in northern China, for by 1997 this river—the world's fourth largest—had the dubious distinction of delivering not one drop of water to the sea over a 330-day period. Ma Jun, who has written extensively on environmental issues in China for the Hong Kong South China Morning Post, described how water scarcity in northern China has led to the depletion of underground aquifers, the destruction of fertile soil in China's "breadbasket," and an influx of eco-refugees who have fled areas ravaged by drought and dust storms. As is with Pakistan, this migration has created an increased stress on urban areas.

Conversely, south China is annually inundated with floodwater. In 1998, floods on the Yangtze River—exacerbated in great part by upstream deforestation—led to a loss of thousands of lives and caused over $20 billion in damage. The Chinese state media reported that in June 2002 alone flooding in southern China cost of the lives of 205 people. In addition to flooding disasters, southern waters are severely polluted and, like the verse from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, residents in this area of China, though surrounded by vast amounts of water, are nonetheless left in a similar situation of the north, "ne any drop to drink." For instance, the rivers and lakes in the Pearl River Delta, though home to 13 percent of China's water resources, contain high levels of polluted, unusable water. Ma Jun noted that multibillion-dollar cleaning efforts in the south have failed; making clear that pollution is a "nightmare that could haunt [southern China] for years."

According to Ma Jun, the agricultural sector in China suffers the most from the water crises in China. With China's economic future resting in the hands of urban entrepreneurs, the government has maintained a policy of guaranteeing water supply to urbanites first, industry second, and agriculture a distant third. Ma Jun recounted a particularly disheartening conversation with a Beijing official who was asked how the city could guarantee water supply to the 2008 Olympic Games—the official assuredly answered that they would simply cut off the supply to suburban farmers. In addition to being a low priority for water allocation, farmers also have suffered severe weather-related problems; nearly 20 to 25 percent of farmland in China faces some kind of drought, while one-seventh of all irrigated land does not receive any water. As a consequence, China's agricultural sector posts a loss of 20 million tons of crop yields annually.

While agriculture bears the brunt of the water problems in China, Ma Jun suggested that it is also the primary cause for the crises. In the last half century, water consumption of China's agricultural sector has increased by four times to 400 billion cubic meters—nearly 90 percent (360 billion cubic meters) of which has been used for irrigation. A desire to increase nationwide production has resulted in a continued exploitation of an already depleted water supply:


  • More than 44 million hectares of grassland have made way to farmland in Inner Mongolia, while 40 million have been converted in northeast China—these vast stretches of desert under cultivation have completely tapped out many major rivers and aquifers;
  • Soil erosion, resulting from farming, has led to reservoir capacity reduction from sediment; each Chinese farmer contributes approximately 10 tons of sediment to rivers each year; and,
  • Nationwide reservoir capacity has dropped 25 percent as a result of sediment.


Cities, of course, are also responsible for the exploitation of water resources. Ma Jun presented Beijing as just one example of the nearly two-thirds of major Chinese cities that suffers major water shortages:


  • Over the last 50 years, Beijing's population has jumped from one to ten million, greatly overburdening the water supply service and wastewater service facilities in the city;
  • In five decades, annual water consumption has doubled on average; and,
  • Beijing's water table drops on average five meters per year.


Ma Jun stated that prioritizing the shift of agricultural water to urban areas reflects the continued emphasis on supply management, which may push the agricultural sector to become more water efficient, but will not solve China's water crises in the long term.

Short-Term Versus Long-Term Solutions
While protection of water quality in major lakes and rivers has become a priority in the two most recent Five Year Plans (ninth and tenth) and laws to increase water consumption fees have been repeatedly lauded as priorities, the Chinese government continues to rely on water supply management to resolve water shortages. Most notable is the south to north water transfer (nanshui beidiao), a $15 billion plan designed to transport water from the over-saturated south to the parched north. There is great reluctance, however, among many cities that are supposed to benefit from the plan—northern provinces are unhappy at the prospect of having to pay user fees for the water, in addition to the inevitable cost of cleaning the polluted water sent from the south. Despite the high costs, provincial opposition, and environmental implications associated with this massive water transfer, Ma Jun emphasized that the emergency situation of the north's water shortage gives China few other options. Moreover, he noted that in the north "people have been consuming water, assuming they will be getting it from the south" in the future.

Nonetheless, observers like Ma Jun have suggested other means of resolving this grave water crisis. At the heart of improving the situation, according to Ma Jun, would be steps to more efficiently use water, such as:


  • Raising water prices would help encourage more responsible consumption;
  • Costs associated with pollution treatment could be passed along to polluters;
  • Clearer water rights and compensation for the use of water should be instituted—if farmers could sell water to factories, they would be more likely to conserve water rather than exploit underground sources; and,
  • Like Pakistan, farmers in China could save water by producing less water-needy crops; reducing subsidies of water-needy crops would give farmers the motivation to make this switch. WTO may offer China the opportunity to buy cheaper wheat and rice from the United States, thereby freeing many Chinese farmers to plant more lucrative, less water intensive vegetable and fruit tree crops.


International Support for Water Conservation in China and Pakistan
In the cases of both Pakistan and China, international NGOs and foreign governments have begun to acknowledge the burgeoning water crises and provide assistance. Sylvana Li, technical expert for the Research and Scientific Research Division at the Foreign Agricultural Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), shed some light on the international efforts to help resolve China's water crisis. With the support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, USDA has been engaged in water projects in China since 1996. The inaugural project focused on providing U.S. drinking water technology to two major markets, Shandong and Beijing, followed by data collection after two years to gauge effectiveness. The project's conclusion was marked by a 1999 workshop in Beijing that included 150 participants from China and the United States. Most recently, USDA has embarked on a watershed management project known as the Yellow River Watershed Initiative. With the support of the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and the Chinese Environmental Protection Foundation, the project aims to address water quality issues, obtaining and analyzing data on wastewater. In terms of international environmental NGOs, such as WWF-China, and The Nature Conservancy have been cooperating with Chinese government agencies and community organizations to implement river basin conservation projects.

Naser Faruqi noted several groups undertaking projects in Pakistan:


  • The United Nations Development Programme has provided support to Pakistan's National Environmental Action Plan focusing on dry land management and water conservation;
  • The International Water Management Institute has examined economic and health effects of wastewater irrigation in Pakistan;
  • The On-Farm Water Managed Irrigation Project is the World Bank's effort to increase agricultural output with responsible water management tactics; and,
  • The Asian Development Bank is sponsoring the Punjab Farmer Managed Irrigation Project that focuses on equitable water distribution and irrigation systems.


Dr. Faruqi, while acknowledging the value of these initiatives, feared that they do not sufficiently stress the importance of limiting consumption and changing the culture of water usage in Pakistan. Moreover, Dr. Faruqi contended that, in general, the international organizations performing work in Pakistan are too polarized; organizations either work directly with the government, ignoring the local NGO community and scientific institutions, or tie themselves exclusively to NGOs thereby limiting their reach and effectiveness. While international initiatives may improve water conservation in Pakistan and China, ultimately, both speakers agreed that each country must drastically shift away from prioritizing the increase in water supply and instead emphasize water demand management.

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