Pakistan’s cry for water

August 26, 2009

Pakistan is running out of water so fast that the shortage will strangulate all water-based economic activity by 2015, a Pakistani thinktank says.  And that pretty much covers 70 percent of the population  who are involved in farming.

This is not a new warning.  In recent months,  as this blog itself has noted, experts have painted an increasingly bleak scenario of Pakistan’s rivers drying up, the ground water polluted and over-exploited and the whole water infrastructure in a shambles.

But Pakistan, as the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies says, is not listening.  Pakistan has gone from a “water scarce” country to a “water-stressed” country, worse than Ethiopia, the Centre says quoting a  2006 World Bank study. In 10 years time, it will become a water-famine country.  

Among the 25 most populous countries, South Africa, Egypt and Pakistan are the most water-limited nations, that study said.

According to the World Bank data, Pakistan only stores 30 days of river water, India stores 120 days, while the Colorado river system in the U.S. has storage capacity of up to 900 days of water usage.

The depletion of water resources is unchecked, as the 2009 UN World Water Development Report points out. It says that the total actual renewable water resources in Pakistan decreased from 2,961 cubic metres per capita in 2000 to 1,420 cubic metres in 2005. A more recent study indicates an available supply of water of little more than 1,000 cubic metres per person. 

India and China are not far behind in this plunder of water, with only 1,600 and 2100 cubic metres per person per year. Which as the South Asia  Investor Review points out is itself cause for serious concern, as it raises the spectre of wars over water in the future.

Just to put the numbers in relation to that for the rest of the world, major European countries have up to twice as much renewable water resources per capita, ranging from 2,300 (Germany) to 3,000 (France) cubic metres per person per year.

The United States, on the other hand, has far greater renewable water resources than China, India or major European countries: 9,800 cubic meters per person per year. By far the largest renewable water resources are reported from Brazil and the Russian Federation – with 31,900 and 42,500 cubic meters per person per year.

How did it get here? Pakistan is one of the world’s most arid countries, with an average rainfall of under 240 mm a year as this detailed backgrounder in Pakistan’s Daily Times points out.

The population and the economy are heavily dependent on an annual influx into the Indus river system (including the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas andSutlej rivers) of about 180 billion cubic meters of water, that emanates from India and is mostly derived from snow-melt in the Himalayas.

But this single river system on which Pakistan almost entirely relies has been heavily harvested and there is no additional water to be injected into system.

Paksitan needs to conserve its water, use it more wisely and set up new reservoirs on an urgent basis, the South Asia Investor says. Or else the threat posed to the nation’s stability by the battle for water may yet turn out be just as serious as the militants trying to take control. 

[Photographs of dried up lake in Islamabad and a well in Baluchistan]

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