Pakistan’s Water Alarm Triggered: Are We Looking at the Right Answers?


Pakistan’s Water Alarm Triggered: Are we looking at the right answers?


Emphasis on the integrated water resource management and proper utilization of available water is more than ever before. Pakistan has been suffering from drought conditions since many years, due to which reduction in river discharges and lesser rains occurred. The reliance on ground water increased remarkably and extensive pumping was observed during the period. World Bank and International Monetary Funds’  reports presented alarming situation for Pakistan as far as water security is concerned which triggered panic among stakeholders and urgent need of new water reservoir or dams emerged. Government also initiated nationwide campaign to build new dams and asked for public donations which resulted in conflicting opinions among administrative units of the country. Political and ethnic voices were raised against dams to counter alarming water crisis that the country is facing. This paper studies the existent situation of water resources for Pakistan and based on available literature, analyses whether approach being taken is the real answer for this problem or there is another way to resolve this concern and diluting the conflict that has overshadowed this proposal.

Keywords: Water resource management, drought, water security



 Water touches nearly every aspect of development. It drives economic growth, supports healthy ecosystems and is fundamental for life. However, this critical resource can harm as well as help. Water-related hazards such as floods, storms, and droughts are responsible for majority of the natural disasters. Water security has been defined as “the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks”

 Pakistan, one of the world’s most arid countries, with an average rainfall of under 240 mm a year, is profoundly reliant on an annual influx into the Indus River system. About 180 billion cubic meters2 of water of the system originates from the adjoining country and is mostly derived from snow-melt in the Himalayas. This hydraulic economy of Pakistan faced massive challenges right from the autonomy of country in 1947. (Briscoe et al., 2005). The first challenge arose at the time of partition of the Indo-Pak subcontinent which detached the irrigated heartland of Punjab from the life-giving waters of the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej rivers which had become part of India. The situation became worst when India stopped the water flow of Pakistan in April 1948. Then, water negotiation started and both states under the mediation of the World Bank negotiated the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) in 1960, giving Pakistan rights in perpetuity to the waters of the three western rivers; Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab rivers. While the three eastern rivers (Beas, Sutluj and Ravi) came under total jurisdiction of India. This arrangement resulted in a new challenge that was of a mismatch between the location of Pakistan’s water (in the western rivers) and the major irrigated area in the east. Again Pakistan’s water engineers were up to the task, building the world’s largest earth fill dam, the Tarbela on the Indus, and link canals, which ran for hundreds of miles and carried flows ten times the flow of the river. (Iqbal, 2010)

 Pakistan’s economy is facing daunting challenges in the water sector. Besides demands of an ever-growing industrializing economy and rapidly urbanizing society, the potential for augmenting supply is limited, water table is falling and water quality issues have increasingly become serious. Pakistan is in the group of countries, which are now moving from water stressed to water scarce. Keeping in view the emerging issues related to climate change, water resource management is also a serious challenge.

 Although large scale water resources development has been taking place in the world, but until vast majority of people shall do not have enough potable water for drinking and canal water for irrigation. According to researchers water supply consists of making water available for agricultural urban use. Agricultural uses include irrigation, watering and farm household use. By law of supply and demand, water will be inexpensive when it is abundant and expensive when it is scarce (Adebayo A. 2007). The distribution of water supply for drinking purpose is quite appalling in modern times. Mean time the downstream people are not suitably protected against flood or disaster hits due to the improper management. Irrigation is the main stay of Pakistan’s economy, around 90% of total agriculture output of the country is totally dependent on irrigation. It is clear that water resources have played very important role in the development of land and water storage system. More than half of world’s population lives in developing countries and the poorest of these communities depend heavily on exploitation of local water resources for their livelihood. (Khoso, Wagan, Tunio, & Ansari, 2015).

Importance of Agriculture in Pakistan

 Agriculture is important sector in the development of country, taking broader perspective on contribution of agriculture to gross domestic production and including associated support services. Agriculture is of immense importance for Pakistan. At the time of independence Pakistan was primarily agriculture based country. But as time progressed Pakistan turned into more diversified country as industrialization took hold. But development of industries had not eliminated the existence of agriculture in Pakistan although the share of agriculture had decreased significantly since its birth. The role of agriculture in the economic development of Pakistan cannot be denied and Pakistan is still characterized as an agricultural country (Sarvesh Chauhan 2013).

Average Annual Flows of Rivers of Indus Basin

  Table  1: River Flows and Water Availability (1979-2015) (MAF)


Total river inflows (a)


Ground water available (b)


Total water supply (a+b)


Average withdrawal through canals


Escapage below Kotri


Evaporation and other losses


Water availability (agriculture)

Average withdrawal through canals


Losses (from canal head to farm gate)


Water available at farm gate (c)


Groundwater withdrawal (d)


Overall water availability (c+d)


        Source: National Water Policy 

 The present water supply in Pakistan is not only limited, but also quite inconsistent in nature. More significantly, the overall availability faces momentous risks from increasing pollution and climate change. The water demand, on the other hand, is rising rapidly on account of growing population and urbanization. Thus, the resulting disparity is pushing the country towards severe water scarcity. Being a semi-arid country, Pakistan relies heavily on the Indus River and its tributaries (Kabul, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej) for water supplies, which collectively put in over 140 million acre feet (MAF) per annum (Table 1). This reflects the country’s susceptibility to a single basin, which itself is subject to insecurity due to continuing water disputes with India.

Water Availability and Population Growth

 As per global standards, 1000 m3 per capita is the threshold value for water scarcity. Pakistan at present is striving with water scarcity and only 1038 m3 of water is available per capita (projected figure of 2010), which will further be reduced to 751 m3 per capita till year 2030. The Figure 1 shows the anticipated growth in the population and the decline in per capita water availability.

Fig 1: Per Capita Water Availability per year (m3)

United Nations’ Report on Water Situation of Pakistan:

 The research project, The Vulnerability of Pakistan’s Water Sector to the Impacts of Climate Change: Identification of Gaps and Recommendations for Action, was launched by the Ministry of Climate Change (MoCC) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in July 2015 in response to this situation. The project’s goal was to analyze how climate change could adversely affect the availability of water resources in the Indus basin, and therefore limit the country’s future economic and social development. It stated that agricultural water withdrawals will primarily be influenced by changes in irrigation efficiency, which is currently about 30 percent, as the country’s net sown area (and associated total irrigated area) is relatively stagnant (Amir & Habib, 2015; Bhatti et al., 2009; Qureshi, 2011). UNDP alerted that Pakistan will reach absolute water scarcity by 2025 if measures are not taken.

Baseline Water Stress

 Baseline water stress measures total annual water withdrawals (municipal, industrial, and agricultural) expressed as a percent of the total annual available flow. Higher values indicate more competition among users.


Figure 2: Baseline Water Stress Level Worldwide

        Data Source: World Resources Institute

 Baseline water stress measures total annual water withdrawals (municipal, industrial, and agricultural) expressed as a percent of the total annual available flow. Higher values indicate more competition among users. Arid areas with low water use are shown in gray, but scored as high stress when calculating aggregated scores.

Figure 3: Baseline Water Stress Level of Pakistan

Drought Severity Level of Pakistan

Figure 4: Drought Severity Level of Pakistan

Media Coverage of Water Related Issues

 Media coverage measures the percentage of all media articles in an area on water-related issues. Higher values indicate areas with higher public awareness about water issues, and consequently higher reputational risks to those not sustainably managing water.

Calculation: Data source for this map used percentage of all media articles on water scarcity and/or pollution. Google Archives was used to search a string of keywords including a river name, “water shortage” or “water pollution,” and an administrative unit, e.g. “River+ water shortage + Country.” The time frame was limited to the past 10 years from January 1, 2002 to December 31, 2011. For each country, the number of articles on water shortage and water pollution was summed and divided by the total number of articles on any topic found when searching for the administrative unit.


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