Measuring the Water Quality of River Sutlej and Ravi for the Health of Indus Basin System

March 21, 2018


Water quality is one of the major water security threats in Pakistan. The contamination of rivers and streams due to the inadequate treatment of domestic wastewater, discharge of non-degradable waste from industries and the polluted runoff from agricultural fields, has led to rapid degradation in the quality of water sources. This problem is becoming increasingly evident in Ravi and Sutlej, the eastern river tributaries on the Indus Basin. As per the Indus Waters Treaty 1960, India is using almost all the water from these rivers - leaving very limited and toxic water flows during most parts of the year. The situation is further exacerbated by additional dumping of wastewater into these rivers after entering Pakistan. The situation has converted these rivers into surface drains that have a huge impact on downstream users and the ecosystem in Pakistan. The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), in collaboration with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization (CSIRO) undertook a study to monitor the surface water quality of these rivers. Since damaged ecosystems affect the quantity and quality of water available for human consumption, studies similar to the one commissioned by PCRWR and CSIRO are important triggers to deliberate how policies and implementation can be used effectively to improve the water quality of rivers and streams.

LEAD Pakistan and Pakistan Council for Research on Water Resources (PCRWR) hosted an interactive session on 'Measuring the Water Quality of River Sutlej and Ravi for the Health of Indus Basin System' as part of Leading Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins. The guest speaker was Dr. Muhammad Ashraf, Chairman PCRWR, who presented the results of the joint PCWR and CSIRO study and recommendations to improve water quality and management of the Eastern Rivers. Leading Perspectives series aims to bring together diverse set of experts to accelerate the thought process on pressing water issues, and facilitate an informed, pluralistic and multi-sectoral dialogue on various aspects of shared river basins.

Key Findings of PCRWR and CSIRO Study

The joint PCRWR and CSIRO study involved a thorough investigation into the state of the transboundary eastern rivers, drains and groundwater of the Indus basin. It monitored the surface water quality of Ravi and Sutlej on a monthly basis from August 2015 to July 2016 and presented results after studying water samples that were taken from selected sampling points. The surface drains entering into these rivers and the drinking groundwater sources around the drains were also monitored. The primary objective of the study was to assess the physico-chemical health of the river waters, the pollution load on river Ravi and Sutlej through drains carrying the industrial and municipal waste, the effects of surface water pollution on groundwater quality and the level and types of cross boundary contamination.

The findings of the study revealed the dismal state of water quality in the eastern rivers, drains and groundwater. None of the measured water quality parameters met the respective global or national benchmarks. A leading cause of this was attributed to the unchecked industrial and municipal waste disposal and intensive agricultural practices. Moreover, fecal contamination was discovered in all samples that were taken from the study sites which presents a major health risk on dependent population. The location points of Syphon and Chichawatni at Ravi and Bukapattan and Jahangraa at Sutlej exhibited heavy contamination of the water and sediments with pollutants such as coliforms, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Nickel, Organo-Phosphorous Pesticides (OPP), Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) and Pyrtheriods.

A Call for Action

The disposal of toxic contaminants into the rivers and drainage canals has directly led to the rapid degeneration in the quality of these transboundary water bodies. It is unfortunate to note that despite once having nascent value, the Ravi and Sutlej rivers have turned into drains of toxic waste. Water quality studies like the one by PCRWR and CSIRO paint a grim picture of these water bodies. This has raised alarm bells regarding water quality in the Indus River Basin. Thus, it is the need of the hour for all stakeholders including government, civil society, and water experts, to adopt a call for action that will ensure water quality control of the eastern rivers.

Following are some key areas that require attention:

(i) Strengthening Governance

There is a need to develop and strengthen institutional and human capacities through water quality control and management interventions at the national, provincial and local levels. Moreover, the concerned provincial governments should adopt measures to control upstream pollution. This can be achieved by installing sewage treatment plants so the toxic pollutants are properly disposed off, and water quality standards are maintained. The government should also provide incentives to industries to treat its chemical effluents before they are disposed of into the water bodies.

(ii) Upholding Water Quality Standards

There is also a need to establish a realistic water quality standard for our water bodies. This standard should be one that adheres to scientific principles, and takes into account various technical and economic considerations. Once the standard has been established, the enforcement of the standard must be ensured. In order to maintain compliance, a robust monitoring mechanism should be developed.

(iii) Research and Development

Currently, there is a dearth of research and data in the domain of water quality of Indus River Basin. This has made it difficult for policy makers to grasp the intensity and scale of rapidly deteriorating water quality. Research on water quality also needs to explore socio-economic impacts of water pollution on downstream communities in the basin. This will enable informed policy making on this issue, including source control, wastewater treatment and freshwater management.

(v) Changing Mindsets

Lastly, there is a need to look beyond the victim mind-set with regard to downstream riparian of transboundary waters. It is common practice to throw the blame of water challenges in transboundary basin on upper riparians. While it is true that India plays a contributing role in pollution of Eastern Rivers, the study undertaken by PCWR demonstrates that Pakistan is the main polluter of River Sutlej and Ravi. Thus, it is critical to bring our house in order and set an example for other upper riparian water users.

Until and unless we adopt a more serious approach towards the water quality challenge and take responsibility for our actions, we will continue witnessing our water bodies turn into drains of toxic waste in the coming years.