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Securing Pakistan’s water

Every summer, Pakistan braces for flooding as the monsoon season and growing summer heatwaves cascade to trigger a series of flood emergencies all over the country. This year too, thousands of people and livestock went into crisis and evacuation as the River Sutlej rose to high flood, impacting several regions of the Punjab.

At the same time, and seemingly counterintuitively, but also because of unchecked population growth, we are also primed to be water-scarce by 2025. The latest UN report, ‘Global Water Security 2023’, places Pakistan in the critically-insecure category.

The hydrological base of Pakistan is the River Indus, which sustains 90 per cent of food production, and clusters the world’s largest irrigation man-made systems in the world in the plains of the Punjab. Although monsoons add to the water in the system, data projections suggest that the Indus River is predominantly glacial fed, relying on them almost 60-70 per cent for freshwater availability.

Data is always thin on the ground but a report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) suggests that the Indus River system may be the most impacted by climate change, pollution, and the associated loss of permafrost. With high percentages of our water source linked to transboundary rivers, rising in the mountains at the confluence of the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindukush ranges, risks to water security and demand at home will have to be managed. A 2022 UNEP report points to dangerous levels of risk to these “Asian Water Towers”, impacted increasingly by extreme warming, which leads to flooding, landslides, and drought in the communities they sustain.

At the same time, rainfall and cyclonic patterns impacting Pakistan are now defined with high unpredictability and intensity. One heavy monsoon can compound the water discharge with heavy flows from upper riparian countries like India, which is linked in its basin and rivers to Pakistan’s Indus River system, almost completely redefining the agri-water nexus in the country. The 2022 monsoon was an exceptional season of unprecedented, spectacularly high rainfall patterns that disrupted everything the world knows about monsoon cycles.

When it inundated one-third of the country and put Pakistan in world headlines as a global hotspot for climate change, the UN secretary-general called it a “monsoon on steroids”. Buckets of water gushed down from the sky to redefine the topography of Sindh and Balochistan, the two southern low-riparian provinces where aridity had advanced substantially over three decades.

What is lesser known is the fact that every summer, as global temperatures rise, population growth and water demand spikes will intersect with climate change to put severe pressure on water and food security. Hotter weather will lead to both higher demand for flood irrigation used by the agri-sector but also higher volumes of water use in thermal power production.

Large upstream dams and barrages have not been able to manage water availability on time for crop sowing and harvesting among provinces, making water distribution, governance, and pricing one of the most hotly contested issues in the federation. Late water releases, uncertainty in rainfall and runoff regimes coupled with progressive warming has led to desertification and sea-water ingress into dry riverbed channels to destroy the soil and aquifers of the southern and coastal areas.

What then does Pakistan need to do to manage the rising levels of water insecurity, unpredictability, contested distribution and extreme challenges, ranging from surges in catastrophic flooding to parched earth and salinity of basins and soil? Economic constraints cannot continue to define adaptive capacity. Water security is too critical a faultline to not merit creative solutions.

Climate solutions, as it stands, face institutional fragmentation, and remain under-leveraged for the needed transformational shift. Conventional thinking in official quarters needs to change. Both scarcity and flood modelling is needed. First, the Ministry of Water Resources needs to modernize its policy, capacity, outreach, and coordination, especially for data-based solutions for managing rising agricultural, industrial and urban demand, far more than prioritizing long-gestation infrastructure projects.

Mechanisms for regulating groundwater usage need to be introduced. Viable rain harvesting projects need outlays by each province and canal inefficiencies plugged in Punjab and Sindh. Flood adaptation and wetland recharge requires a number of coordinated community-based solutions. Many such action menus based on local solutions, including community ponds, are available in the Living Indus Initiative project.

Second, the Federal Ministry of Planning, for its part, needs to embed water, climate adaptation and cross-sectoral demand management into the framework and PC-1 formats it uses for development and resource allocation, and move past colonial-era infrastructure as the only road to conservation or flood-proofing.

Third, the Ministry for Food Security needs to upscale its climate-smart agriculture solutions and build resilience toolkits for changing both irrigation and crop varieties in the provinces by sharing capacity and local solutions. Agriculture is the largest consumer of water in Pakistan, particularly thirsty crops like rice, sugar-cane, cotton, but there is little movement towards pulses, lentils or crops that need less water and are currently imported.

Sustainable irrigation models need to be promoted, not just in pilot projects but those that can be upscaled, while drought-resilient seeds and new crops have to be introduced in farms across the delta area that is fast depleting its ground water as well as its local economy. Promoting intensive or subsidized solar tube-well usage is also not helping the groundwater problem, because much of it has become a finite or toxic resource due to excessive usage, wastewater leaching, high pollution, water-logging, over-abstraction and no cyclical recharge. Arsenic levels are the fourth highest in the world for Pakistan, especially in rural Sindh and Punjab.

Fourth, the provinces need to take stock, execute policy frameworks, and start legally enforcing flood zoning, water conservation, metering, and municipal management. Policies have to address looming urban water scarcity and provinces have to connect the complex dots of transparent water governance in a landscape of competing and uncoordinated municipal and land-use agencies in unchecked urban sprawl.

Big investments in the water, sanitation and health sectors will help manage urban flooding impacts, which is the one area international assistance can be made available. Wastewater treatment and desalination interventions imply capital outlays but can be outsourced by cities on public-private partnership investment models. Different solutions will apply to mountain areas and different ones for the crisis-ridden delta areas. These, including tech-based solutions, are identified and curated in the National Adaptation Plan 2023 put out by the Ministry for Climate Change.

Fifth, nature-based solutions must be applied wherever possible. Mangrove ecosystems and wetland recharge projects can build natural buffers to flooding. Where greening budgets are slashed the provinces can monetize existing carbon sinks, like Sindh has done to replenish and add to its mangrove cover. Whether they are mountain forests or delta mangroves, some percentage of trading in carbon markets can generate the liquidity to replace forest cover.

The good news is that Recharge Pakistan has found itself a climate grant of $77 million, but once it is spread out over the provinces into one project each, the scale will not be enough for full-basin upgradation. Across the country, environment and water management interventions reinforce each other. This means, among other things, basic climate zoning, such as no hotels on riverbanks, or no highways across green areas, because the environment does not degrade in silos. Arid zones will grow bigger under all emission pathways, and when biodiversity losses hit a danger zone, they take wetlands and rivers down.

Lastly, Pakistan needs its citizens to save water. Freshwater is still available in the system, but per capita usage in the country is entirely unsustainable. Under a high-warming and high population growth scenario water demand is projected to increase almost 60 per cent by 2047, especially in the domestic and industrial sectors.

Currently, we have one of the fourth highest levels of per capita water usage in the world. According to the IMF, Pakistan’s per capita annual water availability as of 2017 was 1017 cubic meters, perilously close to the scarcity threshold of 1000 cubic meters. In 2023, many urban areas have reported dangerous deficits which are compounded by the politics of informal distribution.

Sherry Rehman, "Securing Pakistan’s water," The News. 2023-08-26.
Keywords: Environmental sciences , Climate change , Climate solutions , Floods , Heatwaves , Pakistan , UNEP , ICIMOD