Talk20 Shifting From Water Scarcity to Surplus in Pakistan

Wednesday, 11 July 2018


The Indus river system in Pakistan is over-abused and under-utilized. It is choked with pollution and strained with over-abstraction, while its economic potential is not fully harnessed. Historically, the Indus has been viewed as a lifeline for the largely arid country. However, it can be a ladder to a future of inclusive socio-economic prosperity. A three-pronged policy and action approach focused on 1) social behavior and attitudes, 2) technology and innovation, and 3) governance and management can tilt the balance of water and with it the trends of development and well-being in the country.

LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive session with Dr. Daanish Mustafa as the moderator of the session. The session was on “Shifting from water scarcity to surplus in Pakistan” with speaker Dr. Afreen Siddiqi research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and an Associate Director of the MIT Strategic Engineering Research Group. She talked about the unique needs and opportunities in the three-pronged approach and highlighted how they can collectively shift the water future in the country from one of scarcity, to surplus. Dr. Daanish Mustafa, researcher in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King's College, London, moderated the talk. He has a vast research background around water resources, hazards and development geography.

Water availability per person and fixed renewable water resources

The issue of increasing water scarcity in the country is being raised frequently. With deficit irrigation in agriculture, urban water shortages and inadequate access to safe drinking water in rural areas, the challenges for Pakistan seem daunting and complex. It is seen that water availability per person is declining due to increasing population and fixed renewable water resources. Existing data shows that several economically developed and developing countries have modest levels of per capita water resources. It is important recognize that declining per capita water resources of the country are due to increasing population rather than decreasing water supply. Furthermore, there are many developed countries that are economically progressing by using modest amount of fresh water resources. When projections are made about the future reductions in per capita water availability in Pakistan, they should be taken in a wider context. Ultimately what is needed is a positive mind-set and attitude towards addressing the challenge of future sustainability of water resources in the country.

From Scarcity to Surplus: A Vision for Water Security

Groundwater treatment should be closely looked at particularly in a country like Pakistan, where ground water plays an important role for urban and agricultural water supplies. There is growing knowledge of inadequate quality and contamination of ground water that have critical implications for human health and agriculture. Innovation and technology are essential in addressing the issue of groundwater quality, and new technologies can resolve this problem. Emerging technologies for water treatment need to be evaluated (for the context in Pakistan) and adopted for various uses where feasible. Some of the most common and promising technologies for desalination of brackish water are reverse osmosis and electro dialysis which can be adopted for urban supply, and potentially on a limited scale (where feasible) for agriculture. The reduction in agricultural yield due to poor water quality, that includes not only issues of salinity but also of Arsenic need to be investigated in Pakistan.

On governance and management, there is a dire need for thinking about inclusive development – i.e. development and management that lifts all segments of the population and caters to the most vulnerable and needy. In most cases, planning and development of large scale systems like canals, dams, and other large projects, are often done through cost- benefit analysis at provincial or national scale. However, this should be integrated with more detailed sub-provincial, district, or tehsil scale analysis as well. We should understand how will different groups and regions be impacted, and how can big investments adequately address the needs of different population groups. If we continue to build infrastructure and projects that ultimately cater only to national or provincial statistics, but do not adequately and justly distribute benefits within population groups, we will be (and have been) creating inefficient and unstable systems. Recent research of major irrigation canals of the country has revealed persistent and systemic issues of mis-match in entitlements and deliveries at the canal level. The analysis essentially highlights that there is severe lack of seasonal forecasting accuracy and dire need for improving the process of seasonal allocations at the canal-scale. Agricultural productivity is strongly linked with predictability and stability of water supply. The seasonal stability and predictability of canal supplies is not an issue of water scarcity, rather of management and governance.

Improvements in how water is used, adoption of new technologies, and better governance can collectively make a significant positive change for water availability and sustainability in the country. However, the country needs to shift its economic activities to activities that match its resources. Future projections of requirements for water are directly interconnected with the structure of the economy and will be impacted by how it changes. In Pakistan's case, it is imperative to consider how the structure of the economy can be shifted and how can some of the dependence of agriculture be reallocated to free up the water that is required for other important needs. Pakistan can bring about a structural change by providing alternative livelihood options, training and education for people. While the problem under discussion is future water scarcity, what is ultimately the long-term and robust solution is education, training, and diversification of people's livelihoods. A case in point is of people living along the Indus delta in Sindh, and people who are part of low-performing agriculture sector in Punjab. Many people engage in low-performing (but high water-use) activities on account of lack of opportunities for other means of living and earning. One solution for improving livelihoods can be through use of efficient irrigation technologies (along with total use limits), and then using the water savings from agriculture to supply and reinvigorate the dying delta of the Indus river. New life to the Indus delta, that can create productive fisheries of higher value, can transform the conditions of the local poor and impoverished.


Dr. Daanish Mustafa steered the conversation to a conclusion whereby, the audience members were able to ask pertinent questions from the speaker. At the end, the speaker discussed that in Pakistan, the water management sector which is the custodian of large dams and canals is in shambles and in need of a new spirit and a sense of purpose. The crop yields have stagnated, electricity production is inadequate and the Indus basin ecosystem and environment is stressed due to reduced water flows. The policies, technologies and action needed for shifting from scarcity to a future of surplus can be realized only when there is enough public awareness and demand, and political will and sustained support. At the same time the provincial level authorities also need to explore new possibilities and harness strategies that are relevant to their local geography and hydrology for effective water management. What is ultimately needed is greater cooperation among agencies and decision makers across the provinces in the country. A number of issues related to poor performance in the water sector are due to lack of trust within and among key organizations and provinces. If there is trust and social cohesion, than with political commitment, efficient management and new technologies, Pakistan's water balance can tilt from scarcity to surplus.