Talk22 'Groundwater Apathy' in Pakistan's Punjab

Tuesday, 31 July 2018


Pakistan is the second largest economy in the Indus Basin, which it shares with three other riparian countries: India, Afghanistan and China (FAO Aquastat, 2015). The country is the fifth largest abstractor of groundwater globally (National Groundwater Association, 2015), drawing from the Indus Basin Aquifer which is the second most overstressed groundwater basin in the world (NASA, 2015).Despite its critical contribution to Punjab's development agenda from the mid nineteenth century to the present, groundwater as a resource suffers from policy apathy. This apathy exists both in absolute terms, and in relation to the policy attention to surface water.

LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive session on “Groundwater Apathy in Pakistan's Punjab” with Ms. Fazilda Nabeel, a doctoral researcher at University of Sussex. Ms. Fazilda's research analyzes the nature and underlying causes of problems of groundwater (non)governance in the Indus Basin of Pakistan, particularly marginalization of groundwater governance in comparison to technical, legal and institutional development of surface water. Fazilda was previously working as a Visiting Researcher at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) Center for Water Informatics and Technology. She also has six years' experience working on the South Asian Human Development Reports by the Mahbub ul Haq Center for Human Development.

The talk focused on the nature and causes of groundwater governance, particularly the neglect of groundwater management in relation to surface water in Punjab. The talk explores how groundwater as a resource suffers from disregard or apathy despite the critical contribution of the resource in the region's development agenda and state building from mid-19th century to present. The presenter, Ms. Fazilda Nabeel, shared the major findings of her research to illustrate how the potential of groundwater as a small scale decentralized resource has been changed by technological advancements in the last two centuries, making ground water a more important source for irrigation and storage than surface water for the Indus Basin. Yet, the materiality of ground water is peculiar and distinct from surface water, leading to its atomistic and decentralized development that is in one sense antithetical to state control.

Defining Apathy

In practice groundwater pumping for agriculture, domestic use and even industry is neither monitored nor metered. State-society relationship for groundwater use exists only through provision of (subsidized) energy. The existing legal frameworks for Groundwater use are spread over colonial and post-colonial legislation, namely the Indian Easements Act of 1882, and Canal and Drainage Act of 1873 (2006 Amendment), which are hugely inadequate for effective groundwater management.

Tracing the Development of Groundwater and its importance

Colonial period (1840s-1947)

The relationship between colonialism and water in existing literature has predominantly focused on large scale surface water infrastructure. Wells and inundation canals were the primary means of irrigation under 'native' rule, with a few perennial canals.The British, through introduction of large scale engineering works, transformed Punjab's irrigation landscape. Although groundwater played a critical role, especially for wheat production in barani lands, its development lagged due to commercial interests. Most state owned canal projects of the 19th and 20th century yielded a lucrative profitability of 50 percent while investments in Well Sinking, as a decentralised and small scale resource, were developed traditionally at cultivators' expense and were a heavily subsidized activity with the government paying between thirty to thirty-five thousand rupees per annum.

Post-Colonial State Led Groundwater Development (1950s-1990s)

Pakistan's first decade after independence was politically and economically unstable. There was shortage of food, medicine and essential consumer goods due to unfavorable monsoons. In the aftermath of the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, there was an immediate concern for the Pakistani state to make up for the surface water 'lost' to India by constructing massive replacement works for diversion of water from the West to the fields that Eastern tributaries of the Indus formerly irrigated. On the other hand water logging and salinity was a growing problem and presented a sizeable constraint for agricultural growth. Cultivation of groundwater presented a solution to these extensive problems, and with help from the United States, large scale projects were implemented for tubewell construction under SCARP. The Government also started subsidizing private well construction to incentivize groundwater development.

The Neoliberal Turn (1990-present)

The neoliberal turn, encouraged by the World Bank, involved a series of donor funded reforms for both canal irrigation and groundwater irrigation. For groundwater irrigation, it meant privatization of previously state owned SCARP tubewells and their handover to community groups for maintenance and distribution of groundwater resources. The project was designed to alleviate the existing wastage and management problems by transferring responsibility for drainage and irrigation from public to private sector. However, this resulted in a governance vacuum and allowed individual miners to extract the resource according to economic ability, thus exacerbating the inequities associated with tubewell use. It allowed large agribusinesses and extractive industries to further their market interests.

Case Study of Groundwater Degradation – Sheikhupura District, Punjab

Sheikhupura is a major rice-wheat producing district of Punjab, with99% of its agriculture economy supported by groundwater. 86.6% of farmers use cheap diesel tubewells for which there is difficulty in acquiring electricity connection and which have high initial cost. . Small, cash starved farmers, unable to shoulder these costs, resort to alternatives such as joint ownership of tubewells and purchase of groundwater from local water lords. Resultantly, these farmers become vulnerable to exploitation in several ways:

In terms of access to water, they are left at the mercy of water lords or local money lenders.

Industrial pollution has significantly contaminated the groundwater closer to the surface which is the primary source for poorer farmers unable to drill deeper.

Conservation programs adopted by corporations further marginalize the poorer farmers as these schemes only contract larger farmers for deploying efficient irrigation technologies.

The unequal agrarian relations between the landed masses and the tenants/peasants persist from the colonial era and have kept the poorer farmers entrapped in dependence and economic destitution.


Picking up from the lessons of history and the case study of Sheikhupura, it has become imminent for the federal and provincial governments to turn their focus towards creation of coherent policy frameworks for the equitable and sustainable use of ground water. Legislation for tubewell installation was last revised in 2006, where provincial governments were given rights over critically affected areas. This legislation and its implementation need to be reviewed to suit the contemporary context. Secondly, not only is it important to monitor the quantity of groundwater withdrawn, but quality has also become a serious concern. Regulations need to be enacted to control groundwater degradation, and penalties against industrial pollution need to be enforced. Finally, the smaller poorer farmers most affected by this apathy need to be protected and given equitable resources and aid to break their bondage to the local creditors, water lords and land owners.