Water scarcity and the regional hydro-diplomacy

Syeda Asma Hussain


Nations can’t achieve their set objectives until or unless they have a clear vision about what is most important for them. For a nation to grow along the patterns of peace and prosperity there must be a clear and bold strategy that will indicate its success. Without a vision, nations can’t achieve what they are aspiring for. A nation’s clear vision is the roadmap that indicates a prosperous, equitable and dynamic society for which all the factions work together to achieve a collective goal. Water security is becoming a major concern the world over. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, water supply crises are in the top five global risks. The year 2013 was declared as the international year of water cooperation by United Nations.

The global water usage is increasing twice the rate of population growth and will increase up to 40% by the year 2030. Climate change and its impact on climate vulnerabilities has yielded quite a horrific situation. Annual rainfall variability is also a challenge to existing water infrastructure as more than 12 million people will be pushed towards poverty. Approximately 884 million people globally lack access to safe drinking water and about 468 million people facing this situation are from Asia, while 328 million live in sub-Saharan Africa. The demand of water is increasing rapidly with the increase in population and additional requirement in agricultural, commercial, industrial and domestic usage.

Pakistan, with an estimated population of 227 million by 2025, has a current water availability of less than 110 cubic meters per person; a fall from 5000 cubic meter in 1951 classifying Pakistan as a water stressed country. The storage capacity has decreased from 1000 days to 30-day supply and the gap is widening still.  The supply-demand factor is impacted heavily by the climate change issue. The melting of glaciers reduces flow from Indus River which is the primary source of fresh water in Pakistan.

Pakistan is in dire need of a compact water strategy that will address the water storage capacities and the supply losses. Effective policies are required to strengthen the good governance and to maximise the crop yields per unit of the water. International lobbying is mandatory for preserving and protecting its water sources .The growing global needs and increasing population growth, and patterns of supply and demand of the water are becoming factors which are stressing the water shortage issues globally.

The damage to world’s natural resources, the loss of habitat and other species and other environmental concerns give rise to the question that at what cost the countries around the globe are achieving economic growth. An adequate supply of water for all (agriculture, industry and domestic users) is one of the primary goals of the Vision 2025. Realizing Pakistan Vision 2025 requires policy makers to correct the demand and supply imbalance with a sharp focus on both sides of the equation. According to the Pakistan Vision 2015, the top five goals for water security are as follows:

  1. Increase water storage capacity, applicable to the requirements of each province, in line with defined strategic needs and international benchmarks: from currently 30 days to 45 days by 2018, and 90 days by 2025.
  2. Invest in proven methods and technologies to minimize wastage (e.g. in the agricultural sector), promote conservation and gain efficiencies through rationalization of pricing.
  3. Enable more effective allocation with direct reference to national & provincial priorities and related social and economic considerations.
  4. Establish institutional mechanisms (e.g. a National Water Commission) to effectively manage all sources of water (surface, subsurface, rain) and their sectoral and regional allocations (agriculture, industry, urban).
  5. Provision of access to a minimum baseline of suitable water to every person in Pakistan. Pakistan is in the group of countries that are now moving from water stressed to water scarce.

Overview of water resources of Pakistan from 1947 onward:

God almighty has bestowed Pakistan with abundant water resources, with water flowing down the Himalayas and Karakorum heights from the world’s largest glaciers. As a result of these natural resources we have the world’s largest irrigation system and irrigate over 16 million hectors of land. This land is mainly comprised of the areas which are adjacent to the river Indus its tributaries. In 1930 the barrage irrigation system was installed by the Britishers and the before this era,  the natives of the Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and the North Western Frontier had built canals to irrigate their lands. Almost 38 such canals have0 been constructed on rivers Sutlej, Indus, and Chenab to irrigate areas around Bari Doab, Multan, Muzaffargarh, and Dera Ghazi Khan in Punjab.Water level of the Indus during summers has always been higher than the surrounding lands, thus 16 of the  inundation canals covering this area have easily carried  the irrigation water during the past century. The British army had made several constructions and improved the irrigation canals in the sub-continent. Bari Doab Canal; Sidhnai Canal, Lower Sohag, Ramnagar Canal, Lower Jhelum Canal, Kabul Canal, and Lower Sawat’s renovation work was completed by the end of l9th century. However, at the time of independence Pakistan had 29 canals to provide regulated water supply to an area of about 11 million hectares, additional to an area of about 3.2 million hectares irrigated via inundation canals leading from Indus and its tributaries. Upper Sutlej, Lower Sutlej, Shahpur, and Chenab in Punjab are the main inundation canals; whereas, Rohri, Fuleli, Pinyari, and Kalri are the main inundation canals in Sindh. These mentioned canals were converted into regulated water supply canals after the construction of barrages and some of them have become perennial supplies of water.

Significance of water resources in Pakistani economy and other fields:

The agri-ecological regions and the other significant issues such as cropping patterns and their intensities within Indus basin are in a dire need of sustainable solutions to curtail the water stress burden on Pakistan’s economic growth. The current situation of water economics have been revised for possible solutions. It will help to improve economic welfare of the people as well as result in a reduction in environmental issues prevailing in Pakistan.

Agriculture contribution to GDP is around 22% while contribution to foreign exchange earning that is attributed to agriculture is 6%; while this contribution to GDP may slightly increase, agriculture is the dominant sector in terms of foreign exchange contribution. In recent years the livestock sector has surpassed the crop sector in terms of sub-sector shares to GDP. Instable price variations in the international market also require that crop area distributions take account of macro and micro realities.  Postulated changes in water availability in line with Global Climate Models (GCM’s) recommends that Pakistan will face severe water shortages; and  it would be  due to extended glacier melting, global warming, mismanagement of water and lack of water storage facilities, that could help to regulate water from high flow periods (summer-monsoon months) to low flow periods ( -winter months)

Pakistan has a highly varied topography and the Indus plains offer unique opportunities to explore naturally formulated agro-ecological zones that determine what, when, how, where and in what quantities different crops can be grown. A quick look at the agro-ecological zones helps determine where interventions and substitutions may be possible and feasible. Pakistan is very diverse in its climates, land uses, soil types, resources and human capital. This diversity especially along the Indus allows it to practice a highly varied type of agriculture at different levels of productivity. Such agriculture falls into distinct agro ecological zones. The main limitation for agriculture is water shortage because of the arid climate. Development of agriculture is, therefore, dependent mainly on water resources which is more capital intensive than any other development. Sedimentation in rivers and channels, erosion of soil, water logging and salinity, desertification and over-grazing are examples of inefficiencies and leakages in agricultural systems. This requires an ecological approach for agricultural development rather than a sectoral approach presently being followed.

Pakistan has seen stagnation in its dominant cropping patterns in the Indus River with three dominant crops: wheat, sugarcane, fodder and cotton, rice, (sorghum), and maize. The only changes in area allocated are in response to water availability, price response and technology shifts where they have reduced cost or encouraged crop or enterprise substitutions e.g. livestock, fruits, vegetables etc. Current cost of production estimates for different crops according to each dominant production zone are not available. However, recent increases in fertilizer and price of other inputs suggests a downwards trend in profitability. The steady rise in cost of pumping water and continuous upward revision of electricity tariffs, and the long duration of persistent and unannounced load shedding are all constraints that make agriculture a difficult if not a viable proposition in the irrigated areas. It is further expected that with energy costs rising, heightened pressure from IMF for structural changes including elimination of any subsidy on electricity the farm sector is likely to come under extreme pressure. Within the Indus Basin there is dynamics in use of inputs, choice crop varieties, timing of sowing and harvesting but yields have stagnated over the past decade, and growth rates show wide variance from 2-7 which is likely to be further widened as water and energy crisis is aggravated. Cropping intensities in Punjab, KPK, and Baluchistan are high and Sindh tends to display lowest cropping intensities (partly due to mismanaged water and growing high delta crops in abundance e.g. sugarcane, wheat-rice, wheat-cotton, and sugarcane-fodder are dominant crop rotations in the Indus Basin.

Water in Pakistan is becoming scarce. While almost 90 % water is utilized in agriculture, the cost of pumping water with rising diesel and electricity prices and persistent load-shedding is increasing the cost of water. Whereas, rates (water charges) for canal water are dismally low (Rs. 200-400/annum) those with access to a canal have a clear production advantage. In the absence of storage and capacity to regulate there can be no option for water on demand. Thus water pricing without water on demand is an unrealistic concept. For markets to work water has to be available when, where, in whatever quantities demanded and free from interruptions.

Food security is a valid concern for Pakistan and it will continue to produce wheat in most of its cropping systems where water is available or even in those areas where it is not available. However, by bridging yield gaps considerable areas can be released from wheat production and put to higher value enterprises orchards, oilseeds, maize etc. Pakistan needs to rationalize its crop water use based on crop physiology.

Scientific advance in metrology and GIS can help guide where and when water is needed the most. It seems that such information is not available to farmers despite the availability of technology to the meteorological and research departments e.g. SUPARCO. Even input fertilizer and pesticide use could be tied to observations validated through GIS and remote sensing. The high import bill of oilseeds and tea in Pakistan is largely due to a strong political economy that wishes to maintain status quo. Indus Basin can easily be geared to relieve this heavy burden on the national exchequer by substituting crops in the relevant agro ecological zones in favour of oilseeds (both winter and summer) and by taking out low value maize and planting tea in Manshera, Abbottabad and other upper reaches of the Indus in northern areas along the Indus.

Evaluation of water resources within changing climate circumstances was found deficit. The missing link between crop systems modelling and water resources at macro and micro level undermines innovation in cropping patterns that can lead to a major turnaround in the Indus Basin System.

 Reasons for depletion of water resources and future predictions

Challenges and future predictions range from wetlands to depletion and deterioration of groundwater reservoirs. The impact of water stress on agricultural crops is tremendous; the total loss is estimated to be about Rs.50 billion, as it includes the total loss of crops in 3 Million hectares of Barani (rain-fed) areas. Insufficient storage and sedimentation in the three major reservoirs – Tarbela, Mangla, and Chashma is decreasing their storage capacities by over 40%. In this situation, there is need to increase their capability or capacity for the smooth flow of the water supplies.

The continued abstraction of groundwater has resulted in over-pumping and resultant lowering of water table in many areas. Prominent areas among these are Lahore, parts of Baluchistan and some densely populated urban areas of the Punjab and Sindh. Measures to renovate the depleting aquifires are needed to be carried out immediately. Canal-commands are the specific areas where the depletion is mostly observed as the water-flow is lower and the crops are heavily dependent on tube wells. In lower Indus basin heavy investment has been done in the past to make them workable according to the requirements. The reasons may include floods, mismanagement of water resources and very low use of ground water. There is a severe need of appropriate water allowance for the sustainability of groundwater.

Waterlogging and salinity in Pakistan emerged as a result of the mismanagement of irrigated agriculture, flat topography, and seepage from unlined earthen canals. The menace still persists and the situation is becoming serious due to the problem of disposal of drainage effluent. After chemical analysis, both surface and profile salinity was established. Approximately 25% of the area was affected by surface salinity. It is primarily due to increased irrigation.

Pakistan’s irrigation system consists of the perennial rivers which includes a network of inundation and link canals, distributaries, watercourses and irrigated fields, in which an appreciable percentage of the water is lost through seepage and evaporation. A number of studies have showed that the estimate of water-losses in earthen canals, and watercourses, and conveyance- losses in canals and watercourses are around 25% and 30% respectively. Around 25-40% is the application losses in the fields. These losses are high due to application of old irrigation-practices by the farmers and not adapting to innovations. Groundwater is a precious and depleting resource in Baluchistan as it is required to irrigate the apple orchards that exceed the requirements by over 100%. This is a huge water loss; though part of it is recoverable by pumping in fresh- water areas only.

 View point of experts on how to deal with this issue:

The conflict on water in Pakistan is nothing more than hydrological requirements and it needs to be recognized and addressed accordingly. Politicking is not a solution to a very complex geographical, hydrological, economic and environmental problem. Water conservation is to be discussed by the vulnerable/stakeholders not by the political or administrative units. A collective approach is needed by individual citizens, policy makers and the establishment to undertake the measures needed to resolve the issue of water scarcity.

“Monsoon rainwater is one of the biggest resources for water in Pakistan; it also helps in cultivation of barren lands. By diverting monsoon rain water towards desert areas like Tharaparkar and Cholistan the area could be rehabilitated. A large quantity of water is wasted every year. Through proper utilisation it could help in power generation, among other sectors…

Dr Ghulam Rasul (Director General Pakistan Meteorological Department).

“If Pakistan does not receive monsoon rains just for few years, it will result in disaster. There is a need to focus on the significance of monsoon rains as well rather than just talking about over flooding causing disasters which are leading to deaths, injuries, and widespread damage to homes.”

Lubna Bokhari (Director General National Water Quality Laboratory, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources).

“Water challenges of Pakistan could be overcome through a framework of actions. USPCAS-W would initiate to collect data and serve as clearing house on water-related problems in Pakistan. Dr Chaudhry said that water problems of Pakistan should be prioritised so that applied and action research could be done accordingly.”

Dr Muhammad Aslam Chaudhary, (University of Utah, United States.)

 “The academia, civil society and water research centres have to work in coordination for the solution of water challenges faced by Pakistan today.”

Dr Muhammad Aslam Uqaili (Vice Chancellor Mehran University).

“Inter-provincial water disputes between Sindh and Punjab date back to British rule when new canals, barrages and dams were planned, constructed or envisioned. Various commissions and committees were formed to resolve the water dispute but failed since Anderson Committee 1935 to Haleem Commission in 1983 because of three main reasons of the dispute, including shortage of water, injustice in distribution and fear of future impact.”

Muhammad Idris Rajput (Former Secretary Irrigation Sindh and water expert).

Comparing water resources of Pakistan with neighbouring countries:

The profoundly inhabited Asia-Pacific region faces challenges related to water crises, climate change, industrial development, and the decline in quality and quantity of available water supplies. The issues are enlisted below:

  1. The region’s challenges include water scarcity and sustainable development. Industrial development and developing energy requirements will add to already prevailing pressure on water resources in the area.
  2. The Asia and Pacific are one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world. Exposure of people and assets to hydro meteorological hazards has been growing over the past few decades. With urbanization, people and increasingly valuable economic assets are located in hazard-prone areas such as floodplains. Climate change is likely to increase the incidence and severity of extreme events, with some projections including an increase in the frequency of years.
  3. The Asia-Pacific region faces innumerable urban water challenges. These include drinking water supply, water quality control, and limited coverage of sewerage networks, water renewable system to recycle, pollution control, and ecosystem degradation, especially in peri-urban zones and in adjacent river basins. Lack of access to safe water and sanitation, increasing water demand for multiple uses and the concurrent pollution loads, and increasing resilience to disaster events such as floods and droughts are challenge to sustainability of water resources. Urban water needs and challenges require a multi-sectoral approach, inclusive and extensive strategies and a logical framework.
  4. Governments have been heading towards attaining their countries and societies more robustly, but much more work is needed to be done. In many countries, national plans are not being executed, measures to protect the most vulnerable are often lacking, and institutional capacity to handle disasters is at times weak. Some governments have been working towards better integration of disaster risk reduction into development strategies through their development plans. The governments of Bangladesh, China and Indonesia have been consistently investing in disaster risk reduction as they recognize that disasters can undo hard-earned development gains and cause long-term economic and social damage (UNESCAP, 2013).
  5. Asia and the Pacific is one of the most rapidly urbanizing regions in the world, with 2.4% annual growth of the urban population. In 2012, 47.5% of the total population (over 2 billion) lived in urban areas (UNDESA, 2014), with 30% of the region’s urban population living in slums (UN-Habitat, 2013). By 2016, it is estimated that 2.7 billion people will be living in urban areas (UNDESA, 2014) placing considerable stress on the resources..
  6. Experts estimate that groundwater irrigation contributes US$10 to US$12 billion per year to the Asian economy. When also including earnings from groundwater sales for irrigation, that estimate increases to US$25 to US$30 billion (Shah et al., 2003). Bangladesh, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan use nearly half of the world’s ground water resources (IGRAC, 2010).
  7. Micro-irrigation projects can provide at a very low cost an easy access to groundwater to households and is particularly effective in areas with plentiful groundwater resources. In India, the groundwater or tube well revolution has largely contributed to relieving poverty, but the increase in demand for irrigation has also caused severe groundwater stress in areas such as southern and eastern Maharashtra, India, eco-efficient water infrastructure development (Indonesia and the Philippines); and urban wetlands (Kolkata, India).
  8. For peri-urban agriculture and for energy production, efforts to rehabilitate urban water resources should be undertaken to prevent water wastage. Provision of safe water has been primarily under the aegis of governmental bodies, but public-private partnerships are also well established in the region, including the Manila Water Company in the Philippines, SYABAS in Malaysia and Shenzhen Water Group in China.
  9. There are a number of lessons to be learned from recent typhoons and the success stories of cyclone shelters and early warning systems in Bangladesh, India and the Philippines, and from the development of strategic frameworks and revitalized institutional arrangements in river management. Anthropogenic contaminants come from fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture; mining, tanneries and other industries, landfill and garbage dumps.
  10. Ground water is overexploited during the dry season because of water shortage, a situation seen in China (World Bank, 2007b), Thailand (World Bank, 2011) and elsewhere. The Pacific region is also facing freshwater stress.
  11. However, if groundwater resources continue to be used beyond sustainable limits, agricultural production, which is the main source of income for the majority of the population in the region, will be threatened.
  12. Investigations by the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources in 118 cities revealed that approximately 97% of groundwater sources are contaminated, with 64% of cities having seriously polluted drinking water from groundwater sources (World Bank, 2007b). Coastal cities such as Calcutta, Dhaka, Jakarta and Shanghai are experiencing saltwater intrusion in groundwater supplies, due to uncontrolled groundwater abstraction as a result of the inadequacy of public water supply systems. Saltwater intrusion will be intensified by the rise in sea-level resulting from climate change (IPCC, 2014)


The hydro-climatic vulnerabilities are of great risk with respect to Indus Basin Irrigation System. The remodelled framework to address these climactic vulnerabilities is to be dealt carefully as uncertainty is a pivotal factor in these kinds of risks.A comprehensive water strategy and the framework is required to sustain the issue in the long run. Practical steps regarding the preservation of natural resources and with respect to the regional hydro-diplomacy are needed to be implemented. For Pakistan the climate change will pose an additional risk to meet its water demand. Pakistan is facing these challenges of high population and increased demands already, as evident by the hazardous hydrologic events of 2009–11. Deliberate prioritization, improved planning, management of existing assets and budget resources are of critical importance. These strategic choices will be largely dependent on a sound assessment of the economic aspect of these impacts.  In assessing the impacts, several different modelling environments must be integrated to provide a clearer and complete picture of how water and agriculture are interdependent. This analysis is critical in making strategic policies and decisions for a highly uncertain future. Finally, through this integration of multiple disciplines, and a richer and more robust set of adaptations, compact policies for the agriculture and water sectors should be implemented to curtail this issue of water scarcity in Pakistan.




About the author

Syeda Asma Hussain

Syeda Asma Hussain

Syeda Asma Hussain is a freelance journalist, and development communication consultant.

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