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Pakistan is grappling with many serious challenges – some political, some physical and some mix of both. Of these, the less talked about but one of the key existential challenge is ‘water scarcity’ as it has direct bearing on food security and we have a population of almost 208 million to be fed. Agriculture accounts for 19.3% of the country’s GDP and is by far the largest user of water. Almost 90% of the available water, including both surface and groundwater, is used in agriculture for irrigation. We claim to have one of the best and largest irrigation systems in the world; however, Pakistan is a water scarce country now where Per Capita water availability has dropped to almost 1,000 cubic meters. Consequently, it has put our food security at risk because an overwhelming majority of our food comes from irrigated agriculture. Agriculture is already under stress to meet the food demand of the fast-growing Pakistani population. If history is anything to go by, the situation is expected to increasingly get worse with serious implications for food security and our existence at whole.

The sustainability of water resources is a challenge in Pakistan and is a consequence of multiple factors: mismanagement of water resources, inadequate storage facilities, low water use efficiency (WUE), water wastage, inappropriate cropping pattern and outdated water pricing mechanism.

Pakistan has one of the lowest per capita water storage capacities in the world. The country has per capita water storage capacity of 121 cubic meters that is equal to Ethiopia’s capacity. Unlike Pakistan, USA and China have per capita storage of over 2,000 cubic meters. Even India, our next-door neighbor, despite being seven times more populous than us, has per capita storage capacity of over 200 cubic meters. Storage of our major national reservoirs caters only 10% of annual inflow, against the world average of 40%. Consequently, water storage capacity has decreased to less than 30 days against the minimum requirement of 120 days (Development Advocate Pakistan, issue 4, UNDP).

Desperate times call for desperate measures. We need to build multipurpose dams in the country so that we can withstand the floods, droughts and store excess water from melting glaciers and runoff from monsoon. Simultaneously, we need to strengthen the existing reservoirs.

Pakistan’s water resources are confronted with conflicts. Distribution of water among different federating units has been a problem since 1947. Inter provincial accord of 1991, known as water apportionment accord of 1991, has failed to fix it. Indus River System Authority (IRSA) has failed to implement the accord according to its letter and spirit due to the lack of trust among provinces that arises because of many reasons: absence of irrigation infrastructure in KPK and Balochistan, accord’s weak framework, lack of accurate and real-time measurement of water etc. Policies that promote data secrecy impede the effectiveness of institutions that are tasked with planning and allocation of resources. Opacity creates an atmosphere of mistrust. Lack of trust and scarcity of resources will increase more competition and conflicts among all stakeholders.

We need to build the capacity of the federal and provincial institutions responsible for water data management. They perform complex and interdependent functions of modelling, forecasting, water monitoring, distribution and use. Federal legal mandate should be clarified for collection and sharing of water information. In addition to that, measures should be taken to strengthen the provincial level regulatory frameworks for access of groundwater and for its management and regulation. National water policy 2018 has proposed measures to establish a National Water Council to provide essential support for cross-jurisdiction basin planning. It is imperative to establish an implementation framework for National Water Policy that articulates roles, time frames and process for basin planning.

Pakistan has one of the largest irrigation networks in the world, covering over 17 Million hectares and registering losses of over 60% of irrigation water (Pakistan Academy of Sciences, Islamabad). Water courses, Flood irrigation system, canals, and distributary channels are few of the major channels that cause most water losses. The percentage of Non-revenue water (NRW), for which no price is charged, is around 45-50% as compared to the world’s average of 10-15%.

Whilst not compromising on the efforts to augment the storage and supply, we need to also focus on better management of available water. Conventional approach of ‘Build-neglect-rebuild’ is neither sustainable nor efficient and causes annual loss worth 11 billion dollars of assets in irrigation infrastructure according to a study of the World Bank. Water courses should be improved to minimize seepages, leakages and other losses. Simultaneously, we need to adopt the appropriate sowing methods including bed-plantation and Direct seeded Rice (DSR). Water saving techniques such as raised beds, drip irrigation and rain guns should be encouraged. The Punjab agriculture department has provided subsidies worth billions of rupees on installation of drip system on shared basis to hundreds of thousands of farmers however its use is still seen as an exception than rule. Need of the hour is to scale up this initiative to all such areas where it is commercially feasible.

As per a study published by Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, Pakistan has one of the lowest water use efficiency (WUE) when it comes to a crop yield per hectares. In case of wheat, it stands at 0.5kg/cubic meter compared with 1kg/cubic meter in India. Similarly, Pakistan gets 2.5 tons/hectares wheat against the India’s average of 3.5 tons/hectares despite having similar climate and land characteristics. WUE should be improved by at least 25% to increase efficiency.

The state agencies responsible for water management lack the capacity and have no-to-limited knowledge about the current best practices. We need to improve the capacity of the institutions that are responsible for recording, monitoring and analysis of ground water data. Instead of billing the irrigation tariff to the farmer at a cost that is contrary to reality, we need to reform the irrigation tariffs according to the realistic operational and maintenance costs. We should employ advance data techniques to record the actual consumption. It would enable us to charge a consumer in proportion to his actual consumption and would force water conservation.

A latest report of the Federal Commission on Agriculture tells us that water loving crops are getting increasing share of the total cultivated area. Rice and sugarcane top the water consumption chart. It takes an unbelievably high quantity of 3,000 liters and 1,500 liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice and sugar respectively. Ironically, they are being cultivated on more and more area. This time, rice was cultivated on more than 3.3 million hectares. This large scale shifting to rice, even in the areas where groundwater resources are already under stress, for instance district Sanghar in Sindh, has put intense pressure on groundwater reservoirs being depleted at an alarming rate.

It would require coordinated and concentrated efforts to discipline the unchecked growth of water loving crops. Firstly, we should map areas which have enough water to support the cultivation of water loving crops. Secondly, water loving crops should be replaced with edible oil crops that need one tenth of the water than rice and sugarcane in the areas where rice is being currently cultivated and level of underground water has gone to historic low. Local production of edible oil will reduce our import bill and save billions of rupees of water too because we actually export water when we dispatch rice to other countries.

We have witnessed mushroom growth of tube wells across the country that are major cause of ground water depletion. Nearly 65% of the water used for irrigation purposes is pumped through tube wells. A policy should be devised to regulate the installation and operation of tube wells for minimizing the excessive extraction of ground water.

We are running against time. The country’s water challenges must be addressed on emergency basis to protect climate, economy and life. It is a real and existential crisis and needs a befitting and conscious response.

Osama Farooq

Mr Osama Farooq, a business graduate by education, spends most of his time with farmers in the field and is a practitioner who finds ways to innovate to better serve the agriculture sector