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Pakistan's worst nightmare?

Shamil Shams May 30, 2016

Pakistan is facing an acute water shortage and may run dry by 2025, according to a latest study. Experts say the water scarcity is also stoking violent conflicts in the country, which is already battling insurgency.

Pakistani residents fill their jerricans with water as a horse drinks water at a slum area in Quetta, 13 June 2007, as the country is in the grip of a scorching heat wave. Dozens of people have been killed from a sizzling heat wave lashing Pakistan since last week as temperatures have soared to more than 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in some parts of the country (Photo: BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Khan

A country which is dealing with homegrown Islamic militancy and an exponential rise in extremism might not be too concerned about water shortage, or at least it would not be its top priority. That is why the Pakistani government has hinted that it will significantly increase the defense budget for the next financial year, ignoring the fact that water scarcity could be a bigger menace than Islamic terrorism.

The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) has warned that the country may run dry by 2025 if the authorities didn't take an immediate action. According to a yet-to-be released report, parts of which have been made available to the media, the Islamic 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 acute water shortage or drought-like situation in the near future, predicts the PCRWR, which is affiliated with the South Asian country's Ministry of Science and Technology.

The organization says there is an urgent need to carry out research at various levels to find a solution to the crisis. "Unfortunately, the PCRWR has no funds to ensure sustainable research," said a ministry official.

Pakistani demonstrators march during a protest demanding access to clean water at a rally in Peshawar on March 21, 2015 (Photo: A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)
The scarcity of water is triggering conflicts in the countryImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Majeed

Islamabad-based water expert Irfan Chowdhry confirms the report's findings and says that Pakistan is on the verge of a huge catastrophe. "It is alarming that our capacity to preserve water has shrunk over the years. We haven't built new dams since the 1960s, and the capacity of existing ones to store water is decreasing," Chowdhry 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.

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.

The expert 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, the director of the PCRWR, told DW that the authorities had already introduced several schemes in the cities of Sheikhupura and Sargodha and saved up to 50 percent water in the rice fields, without compromising on the production. He called on the government to initiate more such projects all over the country.

A cause of conflicts

The scarcity of water is also triggering 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.

Afghan Taliban fighters listen to Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund (unseen), the newly appointed leader of a breakaway faction of the Taliban, at Bakwah in the western province of Farah (Photo: Getty Images/AFP/J. Tanveer)
Like militancy, water crisis could threaten the legitimacy of the government and stateImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Tanveer

"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.

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.