Managing Shared Basins: Water Security Myths of Pakistan

November 02, 2017


Pakistan aspires to transition to a high-income country by 2047 and water management is likely to be a critical enabler for this transformation. However, if not fully understood and comprehensively addressed, water insecurity issues have the potential to significantly constrain development and prevent this transformation. The breadth of Pakistan's water challenges requires systematic assessment of water-related risks and opportunities, evidence-based diagnosis of the underlying causes of the current problems, and analysis of alternative water futures to guide sectoral reforms and investment in the context of Pakistan's broader macroeconomic targets and trajectories. Unfortunately, the water security discourse in Pakistan is currently bedeviled by a series of 'myths' around storage, glaciers, water use efficiency, water pricing, and urban supply services, amongst others.

LEAD Pakistan hosted a session on 'Water Security Myths of Pakistan' as part of its LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins to identify a few of these myths, with the objective of supporting the increasingly robust and evidence-based public debate on critical water security issues and identifying innovative and sustainable solutions. The expert speaker for the session was Dr. William Young, Lead Water Resources Management Specialist with the World Bank, who gave the presentation in the context of a national water security analysis for Pakistan that the World Bank is undertaking with the assistance of national and international consultants.

Understanding the various dimensions of Water Security

In the hierarchy of water management, the bottommost tier is water scarcity, which defines the simple concept of volumetric availability of water resources. Water stress, the second tier in this hierarchy, focuses on the systematic needs i.e., the water demand vs the water availability parameters. This constitutes more complicated scenarios as compared to water scarcity, including quality issues, accessibility for people, and environmental flows for ecological sustainability. The third tier, water risk, encompasses an even wider scope, including natural hazards (floods and droughts), the governance system, financial risk management, etc. Water security occupies the top position in this hierarchy, covering all these dimensions in addition to development potential, quality of service delivery to communities and the irrigations sector, and management of all water-related risks. The concept of water security is often presented as managing the balance between the productive or positive aspects of water and managing or reducing the destructive aspects of water (including disruptive extremes and pollution).

Framework for Water Security

To consider the issues of water security, a framework must be developed around the performance of the water sector i.e., the actions taken for mitigation of water-related risks and disasters, management of water resources, and the delivery of water services to different users. This framework must provide a structured process to answer three strategic questions: to what extent are water resources being managed efficiently and sustainably; to what extent are water services being delivered reliably, affordably, and inclusively; and to what extent are water-related risks being recognized and mitigated? In assessment of this performance, the focus must be on the outcomes and opportunities for communities, the economy, and the environment. To support this framework, various capitals are needed, including institutional and human capital, financial and infrastructure capital, and natural resources capital.

Pakistan Water Myths

1. The water scarcity myth: The average volume of water per capita availability has been decreasing over time in Pakistan, indicating that Pakistan is going from a 'water stressed' to a 'water scarce' country. However, comparing this situation with other countries, we note that 32 countries have less water per capita availability, 24 of which are wealthier than Pakistan (with 10 times the GDP per capita of Pakistan on average). However, these countries have one-third of the per-capita water consumption of Pakistan, i.e. they are all generating 20 times the wealth per unit of water as compared to Pakistan. So the concept of water scarcity is not just about the quantity but also how productively we utilize and manage this resource. Instead of seeing water scarcity as an insoluble threat, we must consider this a challenge and try to address a few fundamental questions: are we using water most productively in the economy; is allocation efficient and equitable; is demand appropriately managed; and do we have the right incentives that reflect the scarcity value of water and drive-wise use?

2. The water storage myth: While Pakistan's per capita storage quantity is low when compared to other countries, there is no international benchmark on what quantity needs to be stored. Neither per capita storage volume nor days of the average flow present the complete picture, since the primary aim of storage is to buffer supply variability. Pakistan, for example, has other water reservoirs aside from man-made structures, including a large glacial mass and groundwater storage. In Pakistan, while the monthly variability in flows is high due to seasonal effects, inter-annual variability is relatively low as compared to other basins around the world because of the buffer provided by our glaciers. Storage is correlated with this variability, therefore a smaller variability in the mean annual flows indicates that a lesser volume of water needs to be stored.

3. The disappearing glaciers myth: While total glacial volumes are projected to be decreasing, recent studies on glacial shrinkage show less alarming trends where this is happening at a far slower rate than previously estimated. Moreover, in certain regions, e.g. the Karakoram ranges, studies have shown that glacial mass is either in equilibrium or even slightly increasing (this is commonly termed the 'Karakoram anomaly'). There is also an elevation-based difference in melting rates: at higher altitudes where most glaciers are located, these rates are considerably lower than at lower altitudes.

4. The irrigation efficiency myth: The irrigation efficiency is often talked about in terms of losses in the system but does not consider the full system yield and the various recovery mechanisms. While there are losses, we need to consider where these losses go, e.g. some of them enter back into the surface system through surface run-off, enter the groundwater reservoirs through seepage, or become a part of the important environmental flows.

5. The water escapage myth: The common narrative in Pakistan regarding river flows to the sea is that this water is wasted. However, there is a strong evidence that flow regulations and declining flows are adversely effecting the health of the lower river system. Environmental flows improve delta health, estuarine fishery production, mangrove extent and coastal stability/resilience, as well as floodplain health and value. Hence, the 'escaped' water is not a loss, but in fact has direct and indirect social, economic, and ecological benefits.

Conclusion and Way Forward

We must engage in a robust debate on the important issues of water insecurity and challenge the accepted 'truths' if they are not supported by proper evidence and analysis. In doing so, we must see the various water security parameters as opportunities to improve our water resources management capacity. The key summary points regarding the five most prevalent myths of water sector in Pakistan are:

There is greater volumetric water scarcity in many other countries with higher water productivity, proving that scarcity is not an insurmountable challenge but requires better water management and smarter water use.

The aim of water storage is to provide a buffer against variable inflows and increase reliability of supply. We must focus on high value uses of water by increasing land productivity, water productivity, and irrigation efficiency, rather than focusing on constructing larger storage infrastructure.

Impacts of glacial retreat are unlikely to have pronounced effects at basin scale. In fact, increasing variability and changes in monsoon patterns are likely to pose greater risks and therefore we must manage these variabilities and uncertainties.

To measure irrigation inefficiency, we must consider full system water balance prior to investing towards 'saving' water.

River and delta health is declining, largely because of reduced flow. For a healthy and productive lower basin, increased but variable flows are required.