The week started off with World Water Day – which is celebrated every year since 1993 on 22nd March. While it passed quietly here probably because of other challenges overpowering the economy right now like the pandemic and the inflation – not to mention the political noise – the UN day was celebrated across the globe under the theme: valuing water beyond its economic value, which means recognizing and considering all benefits – economic, social, cultural and ecological provided by water to different stakeholders.
The United Nations World Water Development Report 2021 released on World Water Day also circled around the same theme. Value and worth of this finite resource is dealt across five interrelated perspective in the report: (1) Valuing water sources which includes on-site water resources and ecosystems; (2) Valuing water infrastructure for water storage, use, reuse or supply augmentation; (3) Valuing water services, mainly drinking water, sanitation and related human health aspects; (4) Valuing water as an input to production and socio-economic activity, such as food and agriculture, energy and industry, business and employment; (5) Sociocultural values of water, including recreational, cultural and spiritual attributes.
Of these, the most significant perspective for an agrarian country like Pakistan is value of water as an input in agriculture and food which drives sustainable food security and long-term economic growth of the country. The report highlights that while global food production has kept pace with population growth, 10 percent of the population were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2019, and this number has increased further in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts worldwide.
In agrarian economies, agriculture and irrigation is the single largest consumer of water and any reforms on this side could bring significant improvement in water availability and its efficient use. In Pakistan, over 65 percent of the population lives in the rural areas where agriculture employees over 40 percent of the labor force.
This segment is the largest consumer of water as it consumes around 90 percent of the available freshwater, while its contribution to GDP is around 20 percent. Much worse is the fact that 50 percent of the water goes to wasted due to poor irrigation practices and outdated crop management techniques as well as obsession with water intensive crops like rice, cotton, sugar and wheat. This results in water shortage for ever increasing urban population. Hence with falling supply and rising demand, there is a disproportionate distribution of water, which is a key challenge for Pakistan.
The report highlights that in addition to the low levels of per capita water availability in Asia and the Pacific, high levels of water pollution are observed with more than 80 percent of the wastewater generated by the developing countries is not being treated.
So, understanding, recognizing, and measuring the value of water for the agriculture sector and integrating it into decision making are crucial for equitable water resources management as well as achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specifically Goal 6 and 13. 2018 was a transformational year for Pakistan in the sense that the country’s first comprehensive water policy was announced which initiated debates and discussions on the future of water security. More than two years down the lane not much has been achieved. Much more is required than mere single day water awareness walks or one-day conferences on the World Water Day – or webinars and online conferences in the present scenario.