Dr Muhammad Ashraf is an agricultural engineer by profession. He received his PhD from University of Newcastle, UK and has served a 22-year long career in R&D of water resource management. Dr Ashraf has over 80 research publications to his credit, carried in both national and international journals of repute.
His primary areas of expertise include rainwater harvesting, irrigation system design, groundwater management, and wastewater management. Other than PCRWR, he has also worked with local as well as international organisations such as Pakistan Engineering Council, International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA).
He is currently serving his second stint as Chairman Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), a research-oriented body under federal ministry for science & technology. In addition, he is also the editor of a journal called “Paddy and Water Environment”, an international research publication by Springer.
After the semi-drought conditions of last year, it appears that Pakistan faces a season of heavy monsoon rainfall where water availability may exceed domestic demand. BR Research sat down with Dr. Ashraf to understand whether the spectre of water scarcity persists, or the fears raised last year were exaggerated. Below are the edited excerpts of the conversation:
BR Research: PCRWR has usually made headlines in recent years for its research on quality of drinking water in the country. Is the organisation’s mandate limited to research on potable water, or as the name suggests, does its scope include all freshwater resources?
Dr Muhammad Ashraf (MA): PCRWR’s research and development mandate includes all domestic water resources, from surface- and groundwater management to rain-fed agriculture. As past chairmen of the organisation usually had formal training in chemistry, it is correct that the body of research work had become more inclined towards assessment of drinking water quality.
As is now widely known, over 93 percent of total surface water resources are utilised towards agriculture sector. In addition, twelve million hectares or forty percent of culturable land is exclusively rain-fed and practices dryland agriculture.
In contrast, drinking water utilises no more than two to three percent of total resources. While the share of potable water appears underwhelming, its impact on human health, sanitation, economy, and ecosystem is disproportionately high.
Geographically, our focus of work spans the entire country, from data collection of glacial-melt in northern areas to study of seawater intrusion in Indus delta. PCRWR has regional offices in all strategic locations, including Quetta, Bahawalpur, Lahore, Peshawar, Tando Jam, Karachi, Muzaffarabad and Gilgit. Each office works on water sector issues unique to region’s geography.
For example, the one in Bahawalpur is in desert climate, and focuses on areas such as rain-water harvest, dryland and saline agriculture. In addition, 18 laboratories for testing of water quality are also located all over country.
BRR: Do you agree with the view that PCRWR should be housed in ministry of water resources instead of science & technology to ensure better coordination with other water sector organisations and avoid duplication of research and conflict of mandate?
MA: I believe that all public sector water-sector bodies should be housed under one umbrella organisation and have been arguing for this position for a long time. Having said that, there is difference of opinion on this issue. Those who disagree believe that ministry of science & technology is the custodian of all scientific research conducted in public sector domain. Viewed from this perspective, the opposition position holds some merit as well – as in principle, it ensures that R&D organisation may complement each other and avoid duplication of work.
Nevertheless, the challenges of the water sector are becoming increasingly more complex, from transboundary water sharing mechanisms to intra-provincial arrangements. The solution to these complex issues requires cross-sectoral expertise including but in no way limited to law, economics, and environment.
In this context, National Water Council is also being formed, which is hoped to function as the umbrella body that will allow collaboration between the disparate array of organisations that we see currently.
BRR: You spoke of an array of water-sector bodies that focus on specific areas. For example, FFC for floods; IRSA for canal systems management; WAPDA for water and power; and so on. Yet, no such organisation exists for groundwater, which arguably supplies one-third of total freshwater resources. Do you agree that this has led to a dearth of research on groundwater? Is it one of primary focus areas for PCRWR?
MA: PCRWR is probably the only organisation in the country that has extensively worked on mapping and investigation of underground aquifer. Over 30 reports have been published in past three years alone. For example, upper and Indus has been fully detailed, as has been FATA and the salt range belt. Work on mapping of groundwater in KP and Sindh is also underway.
Our work has indicated that groundwater is depleting in the regions surrounding the central and tail-ending areas of the canal command system, whereas the level of water table is more or less is same in the upper reaches of canals, because the recharge rate and losses are higher in those regions.
Moreover, aquifers are depleting most in urban regions, as groundwater abstraction caters to more than 90 percent of drinking water demand in the country. The mushroom growth of concrete-based infrastructure in cities mean that recharge rate is very low, even in regions such as Islamabad that have adequate rainfall.
However, beyond research and mapping, as a federal body PCRWR cannot play any role in regulation of groundwater resources as they are purely under provincial domain. For example, using the database of aquifer depletion developed by PCRWR, Punjab government has developed a framework for groundwater regulation. And I believe that’s the model we must stick to.
BRR: You mentioned the disproportionate share of agriculture in consumption of country’s freshwater resources. However, there is some confusion whether the sector consumes 90 percent of surface water resources, or whether that figure includes all groundwater resources as well.
MA: The consumption of surface water for drinking purposes is minimal and is limited to cities such as Hyderabad and Karachi, which are the only major urban centres dependent on surface water due to salinity of underground aquifer in coastal regions. In addition, more than sixty percent of groundwater is consumed by agriculture sector.
Thus, almost all of surface water goes toward agriculture; as does three-fifths of groundwater.
BRR: Lets now come to the ongoing debate in policy circles as to whether the water sector faces a challenge of shortage or inequity of resource distribution?
MA: In 2016, I had published a paper that analysed Pakistan’s available water resources based on all four major globally accepted indicators of scarcity. The paper noted that if Pakistan’s freshwater resources were to remain constant whereas population were to continue to grow, the country will approach absolute scarcity by 2025 as defined by various parameters.
The media turned it into a burning headline that read “PCRWR claims country to run dry by 2025”. While an obvious misquote, I believe it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The media attention that water sector has received since then made sure that shortage of water took centre stage in policy circles. This ultimately also led to initiatives such as approval of national water policy; establishment of dam fund; and symposium on water council organised by Supreme Court.
Scarcity is defined as the gap between supply and demand. When resources are constant, while demand grows due to sheer increase in number of consumers, it will result in resource scarcity. I believe that’s a basic lesson of economics.
BRR: Outcomes of research on effectiveness of water pricing are actually very divisive. Recent research published by LEAD Pakistan on filtered and unfiltered water access in Faisalabad district indicates that price and income elasticity of water is very low. Does low demand elasticity not render water pricing useless as a tool to encourage conservation and discourage waste?
MA: Whenever water pricing is spoken of as a tool to rationalise consumption patterns, it does not refer to a mere two or three times increase from current abiana levels. Understand that the abiana rate currently charged in the agriculture sector is so low that even a four- or five-times increase will do very little in achieving behavioural change in existing wasteful consumption practices.
As long as water is available to consumer in abundance, wasteful consumption practices will continue. Instead, we need to introduce basic technology based smart solutions such as telemetry that are now very common in developed world. Such systems accurately regulate release and stoppage of water to a litre, and also charge the consumer accordingly.
BRR: It is often argued that the current major crop paradigm consists of water thirsty crops, whereas use of resource by livestock sector is also wasteful. In the interest of conservation, would you recommend a change in policy encouraging cultivation of crops that are relatively less water thirsty?
MA: We have already recommended restriction of rice, wheat and sugarcane cultivation for domestic consumption purposes only, and not as export-oriented crops. We need to focus on crop zoning. High water consumption crops such as rice and sugarcane need to be restricted to areas that have sufficient provision of water. For instance, rice or sugarcane cultivation in Southern Punjab needs to be discouraged.
If abstraction of water for these crops in areas naturally deficient in water is continued, we risk exposing the soil in these areas to salinisation. This has already started to happen in Sindh, which will take at least a decade of efficient practices to reverse.
BRR: Is absolute water scarcity index a good measure to gauge scarcity or should geographical terrain be considered along with other climate related factors?
MA: A combination of different models is used to deduce water scarcity inclusive of absolute water scarcity, water poverty index, physical and economical water scarcity. Of importance is the spirit behind physical and economical water scarcity; it helps in appreciating the need for infrastructure and investment that can leverage and utilise the physical presence of water.