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Turning the tide for water conservation

The every drop counts hashtag has garnered immense public following. In many ways, the UN’s declaration of 2018-2028 as the International Decade for Conservation of Water is shaping public discourse on the globally critical need for taking effective measures for water conservation.

A not so common wealth?

And while the World Water Day celebrated annually on March 22, it also draws the attention each year the profundity of the situation: 2.2 billion people do not have access to this ‘common wealth’. In Pakistan, the per capita availability of water has dipped below the minimum level of 1,000 cubic metres per year. Already an extremely water-stressed nation, we are slated to become the most water-stressed country in the region by 2040.

At least 14.2% increase in water availability is required to meet the needs of Pakistan’s ballooning population by 2025 — so taking action now is imperative. The first thing for all to understand and accept is that our water crisis is a management problem rather than a pre-ordained decree and thus there is a human solution. Pakistan has annual flows of 145 MAF of water. With proper management and planning, the actual requirement is 40 MAF; however, with our antiquated water management systems, research indicates that even 300 MAF of water would not suffice.

According to the 2019 World Bank Group report, deficiencies in Pakistan’s water resources “… are expected to become starker with increasing water demands and climate change.” Our high water intensity rate (cubic meters of water used per unit of GDP) suggests there is no other economy that is more water intensive. We have the highest stakes, and the most to lose.

For better or for worse, in flooding and in drought

World Water Day 2020 focuses directly on the inextricably intertwined relationship of water and climate change. Despite Pakistan’s negligible contribution to greenhouse gases in global context (less than 1%), it is one of the top 10 countries adversely affected by climate change. A World Wildlife Fund report posits that due to Pakistan’s geographic location, average temperatures may rocket higher here than anywhere else — up to 4 degrees Celsius and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100. The years 2014-2017 already brought severe droughts, and higher temperatures lead to increased demand and rates of evaporation. At this rate, glacial melt may surge, resulting in floods, and then inevitably decrease, further compounding the likelihood and intensity of droughts.

As per a 2016 UNDP report, the agriculture sector accounts (conservatively speaking) for 91.6% of total water usage, whereas global averages are closer to 70%. Pakistan’s productivity per unit of water ranks lowest amongst climatically similar nations, coming in at a paltry 0.13kg/m3 as compared to, for example, India at 0.39kg/m3 or China at 0.82kg/m3. The extensive use of tube-wells, coupled with unlined canals, leads to water losses of up to 40% through seepage en route to the field. Increasing aridification of land due to climate change and less water to boot, will cause agricultural yield to decline further. Throwing money—or water—at an inherently flawed system isn’t enough. Thus the need of the hour is to check the illegal groundwater extraction mafia, line canals, implement better rainwater harvesting techniques and learn from global best practices about efficient irrigation methods.

Take, for instance, the Canal Solar Power project in India. A 19,000-kilometre stretch of the Narmada canals is covered with solar panels, meaning the water is protected against evaporation losses and simultaneously used to generate electricity. Similarly, drip irrigation can potentially reduce water consumption by 30-70%, and increase yield by 20-90%. More bang for your buck(et) indeed.

Come together, right now

Yes, it is the government that must take the lead and form a solid water management policy, based on empirical research and not buckle under pressure from vested interests. But all other stakeholders not only be taken on board, they must also come forward and play their due role. The corporate sector is also a key stakeholder, especially businesses that use water as a primary input for their products and production. A worthy example to quote here of a business that is already leading the way is of Coca-Cola Pakistan, which by the end of 2019 already, had made its business water positive, or in other words, it has put back into nature more water than it used for all its products and production processes. In quantitative terms, it replenished over 3 billion liters of groundwater through 10 water stewardship projects, executed in partnership with highly reputable organisations like UNDP, WWF, Indus Earth Trust, Rotary and MGPO. The results of these projects were quantified by independent international agencies LimnoTech, GETF and Deloitte in the US.

Thus if we want to avert the impending water crisis, inevitable within the next few years as all studies conclude, it is imperative that all stakeholders come together, right now, and discuss, debate and agree upon actions to be taken that will yield definite positive and measurable results. In this regard it is essential that all stakeholders engage in an in-depth and meaningful dialogue to seek the sustainable solutions required.

Aysha Imtiaz, "Turning the tide for water conservation," Business Recorder. 2020-03-22.
Keywords: Economics , Economic issues , Public discourse , Water conservation , Cubic metres , Management problem , Human solution , Climate change , Pakistan productivity , Solar power , Pakistan , UNDP , WWF , MGPO , GETF

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