Drops to drink

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Leaving aside the polar caps and the fresh water stuck there, about 97 percent of fresh water potable reserves are underground. Usually when water is talked about, it is oceans, rivers, lakes and streams that are talked about and not ground water. Even though, for most cities and localities it is ground water that provides water for drinking, it is ground water that is crucial for agriculture in a lot of rain-fed areas, as well as helping us get rid of liquid waste and/or deal with it.

But it is only recently, as water crisis has become more of a reality and water shortages have been looming on the horizon in all sorts of areas around the world that some attention is beginning to be paid to ground water issues. To put it simply, ground water reserves (underground water) are a part of the overall water reserves and an important part and ingredient of the water equation and balance in any economy. In any area, rainfall, water from canals and rivers, water under the ground and any liquid waste that is allowed to soak into the soil of the area form the total water reserves of the area, and they interact with each other. Changes in one affect all others through many direct and indirect channels. We cannot understand the water economy of an area without looking at all of these and without understanding their many interactions.

Rain replenishes not only rivers and lakes it also raises ground water levels too. And river and lake water also gets absorbed into the ground. Liquid waste disposal in an area also makes it through to the ground water, though if fresh water reserves are deep enough and waste goes through enough of the soil’s natural filtering process, it does not pollute the ground water. But, as can be guessed, improper disposal will endanger the fresh water reserves.

Though water rights and regulations on water management and use have been developed a lot over the last few decades, they have mostly been about storage, management, and use of surface water. Ground water reservoirs, though they may be from one square kilometre to hundreds of thousands of kilometres, have traditionally been treated as ‘free’ resource and it was thought that whoever owned the land had the right to mine water from under that land.

And we still have little knowledge of ground water reserves and how they interact with the rest of the system. But, as mentioned, ground water is not unlimited and ‘free’, and water mining by one person has an externality on people living in the area as well. In other words, ground water is a public good and its mining poses the familiar ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem. Increasingly there is a move towards development of proper rights over ground water. While in many countries and jurisdictions that has already happened, in Pakistan we are still behind on this.

Consider a couple of examples. Quetta, in the last decade, faced a couple of drought years. Government and the people thought the solution was to dig up more wells. This was done and ground water was mined, without proper regulations on who was taking how much water, for what, and at what price. The result was a tremendous fall in the ground water level. Obviously, if water is mined at a rate it is not replenished, the aquifer will not be able to maintain itself. But the situation gets a lot more complicated and since we do not have a lot of information on ground water reserves, it becomes difficult to predict what is sustainable or not.

Clearly local people and so their local governments should have a say in how their water is going to be used. A lot of water used in Islamabad is being brought into the area from surrounding localities. Similarly, Faisalabad gets some of its water from Chiniot. Should the people giving up this water be compensated in some way? Should water rights not be defined better? Companies that sell bottled water are pumping a lot of water from aquifers that are on top of whole cities and communities. Should we allow companies to make money and treat water as free while it is the communities who will, eventually, pay the price for changes in water levels or reservoir?

Most of the recent research shows that for sustainable water usage and management, integrated water management systems have to be created that develop the jurisprudence, laws and regulations for all types of water, develop information gathering and research capabilities regarding all of them, and make the necessary changes in local, provincial and federal laws that allow such systems to be introduced. In parallel, it is also felt that these changes will not happen unless citizen and civil society bodies also take up the cause of effective water management.

The importance of managing water resources cannot be overemphasised (can we all afford Rs 15-20 for a small bottle of water?). We have already seen what large impacts even relatively small changes in rain patterns have on our agriculture as well as on potable water reserves. And though we have some regulations for use of surface water, we have, in Pakistan, not even started thinking of optimal regulatory regimes for ground water. But we have to move quickly on this.

The good thing is that water management has become more advanced in many other jurisdictions and so we will not have to invent the wheel. But knowing the ‘speed and effectiveness’ governments move with, it will take concerted efforts from civil society to get water issues, especially ground water issues, on the agenda of the governments in power.

 

The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]