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A bigger threat than terrorism

February 7, 2017

A UNDP report says that Pakistani authorities are negligent about an impending water crisis that is posing a serious threat to the country's stability. Experts say the South Asian country is likely to dry up by 2025.

Pakistan Hitzewelle
Image: Reuters/A. Soomro

The major threat that Pakistan faces today is not Islamist terrorism but water scarcity. While the former makes headlines all over the world, the latter is an issue that is hardly discussed in the national and international media or by policymakers. But a recent UNDP draft report on the water crisis in Pakistan sheds light on a serious, albeit much-neglected, conflict the South Asian country is grappling with.

While discussing the UNDP report "Development Advocate Pakistan," Shamsul Mulk, former chairman of the Water and Power Development Authority, said that water policy is simply non-existent in Pakistan. Policymakers act like "absentee landlords" of water, he added.

"Because of this absentee landlordism, water has become the property of the landlords and the poor are deprived of their share," Mulk said.

Natur Umwelt Bodenerosion
Pakistan hasn't built new dams since the 1960s, say expertsImage: picture alliance/ZUMA Press/PPI

The draft report on water resources was prepared at the request of the ministry of water and power. Mulk said, however, the cabinet ministers never reviewed it.

Last year, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) warned that the country may run dry by 2025 if the authorities didn't take immediate action. It said the majority-Muslim country touched the "water stress line" in 1990 and crossed the "water scarcity line" in 2005.

If this situation persists, Pakistan is likely to face an acute water shortage or a drought-like situation in the near future, predicted the PCRWR, which is affiliated with the South Asian country's Ministry of Science and Technology.

Expert Irfan Choudhry says the authorities lack the political will to tackle the problem.

"There are no proper water storage facilities in the country. Pakistan hasn't built new dams since the 1960s. What we see is political bickering over the issue. The authorities need to act now. We can store water for only 30 days, and it is worrisome," Choudhry told DW.

Climate change and poor management

Pakistan has the world's fourth highest rate of water use. Its water intensity rate - the amount of water, in cubic meters, used per unit of GDP - is the world's highest. This suggests that no country's economy is more water-intensive than Pakistan's.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Pakistan is already the third most water-stressed country in the world. Its per capita annual water availability is 1,017 cubic meters - perilously close to the scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. Back in 2009, Pakistan's water availability was about 1,500 cubic meters.

Pakistan Lahore Anti-Terror-Einsatz
The scarcity of water is triggering conflicts in the countryImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ali

The bulk of Pakistan's farmland is irrigated through a canal system, but the IMF says in a report canal water is vastly underpriced, recovering only one-quarter of annual operating and maintenance costs. Meanwhile, agriculture, which consumes almost all annual available surface water, is largely untaxed.

Experts say that population growth and urbanization are the main reasons behind the crisis. The issue has also been exacerbated by climate change, poor water management, and a lack of political will to deal with the crisis.

"Pakistan is approaching the scarcity threshold for water. What is even more disturbing is that groundwater supplies - the last resort of water supply - are being rapidly depleted. And worst of all is that the authorities have given no indication that they plan to do anything about any of this," Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, told DW in an interview.

Blaming India

Yet, Pakistan blames India for its water crisis. The country's authorities say that New Delhi is not fulfilling its responsibilities under the Indus Waters Treaty - brokered by the World Bank in 1960 - as they voice concerns over India's construction of new dams.

Pakistan Quetta Wasserversorgung
Like militancy, a water crisis could threaten the legitimacy of the government and stateImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Khan

Recently, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took up the dams issue with the World Bank. Sharif urged the Bank to play a "lead role" in resolving the water disputes between Pakistan and India by establishing a Court of Arbitration. But the international community, as well as the UNDP, holds Pakistan responsible for the dispute.

Kugelman says that the Pakistani authorities need to step up efforts to overcome the crisis, which is partly man-made. "First of all, Pakistan's leaders and stakeholders need to take ownership of this challenge and declare their intention to tackle it. Simply blaming previous governments, or blaming India, for the crisis won't solve anything. Next, the government needs to institute a major paradigm shift that promotes more judicious use of water," Kugelman emphasized.

Ashfaq Ahmed Sheikh, director of the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, told DW that the authorities had already introduced several schemes in the cities of Sheikhupura and Sargodha and saved up to 50 percent of water used in the rice fields, without compromising on production. He called on the government to initiate more such projects all over the country.

Fueling tensions

The scarcity of water is also triggering security conflicts in the country. Experts say the economic impact of the water crisis is immense, and the people are fighting for resources. Three out of four Pakistani provinces blame the most populous and politically empowered province, Punjab, for usurping their water sources.

"The government is ignoring the interests of our province," Ayaz Lateef Palejo, a nationalist leader from the southern Sindh province, told DW. "There is massive corruption in the water sector, and we are unhappy with the situation," he added.

Indien Narendra Modi trifft Nawaz Sharif in Neu-Dheli 26.05.2014
Pakistan blames India for its water shortageImage: Reuters

Kugelman also believes that the economic implications of the conflict are creating rifts among the population, which are likely to aggravate the security situation in the country.

"The political implications of the crisis have yet to be determined, but we can expect that if nothing is done and the situation gets worse, pressure on the political leadership will intensify. In the years ahead, this could lead to unrest-and, if things get sufficiently out of hand, perhaps even a military takeover. None of this can be ruled out. Such is the seriousness of the situation," said Kugelman.

"Some may say that loose nukes and Islamist militant takeovers are the big fear for Pakistan. For me, the nightmare is water scarcity, because in Pakistan it is very real and already upon us," the expert added.

Additional reporting by Sattar Khan, DW's correspondent in Islamabad.