Water, water everywhere


But not a drop to drink

Water is the source of life, yet in Pakistan while all the infrastructure spend is about power and transport, this very important component appears to be neglected by successive governments. The last major water resource project was completed in 1976, namely the Tarbela Dam, and even that had been in planning (although it was not part of) since the Indus Basin Project in the mid-sixties. But in 1977 Pakistan’s population was around 65 million, today the population is closer to 180 million or 115 million more people. Yet we have done very little to increase and amount of water available for drinking and agriculture to cater for this almost three fold increase in population.

As a result Pakistan today is a water stressed country with water availability of less than 1,000 cubic meters per capita, and according to the data released by the World Resource Institute, if matters continue as they are Pakistan could become one of the most water stressed countries in the region by 2040. This is worrying news for most except the successive governments running this country.

But in terms of water resources the availability of water in the rivers is dependent on snowmelt and to a lesser extent rainfall. At the source or Rim station of the river basins in Pakistan the availability of water depending to drought and flood varies is approx. 120-90 MAF.  While water that is discharged into the Arabian Sea, downstream, of the last barrage on the Indus Kotri is between 30 -75 MAF (million Acre feet) with the average discharge approximately 45 MAF (55,500 million cubic meters).

The architect of the Indus River Basin (IRB) treaty implementation plan was a World Bank expert Pieter Lieftinek, based on his extensive experience during the IRB project he published a book in 1968 titled Water and Power Resources of West Pakistan, regarded by many old time engineers as the ultimate guide for Water Resources in Pakistan, amongst other suggestions one important suggestion was that by the year 2000 Pakistan should have constructed two more Dams on the Indus River, as even after storing this amount of water there would still be ample water available for the obligatory discharge into the sea to ensure that the ecological balance of the marshes on the Indus Delta as it meets the sea is not disturbed. Today the majority of the discharge is in the months of July and August and so the effect of reducing water discharge during those months would not materially affect the ecological balance.

But in the meanwhile life must go on, the demand for water is increasing both for agriculture as well as domestic and industrial use, so where possible Pakistan’s precious ground water resources are being utilised often in an unsustainable manner. According to one estimate almost half the water being supplied in the Punjab (where ground water quality is good) is from tube-wells. This is fine so long as the water being taken out from the aquifer is being replenished by infiltration (inflow back into the ground water reservoir) from rain water and seepage of irrigation water. But sadly this is not the case, the off take is more than what is being replenished with the result that the level of the underlying water table is dropping as the overall aquifer volume reduce. This is water mining and a dangerous path that we are following. We need to look no further than Baluchistan where indiscriminate water mining has almost completely destroyed the ground water aquifer and the levels now in some places are below 1000m.

History is full of nomadic tribes that had to migrate when the well they were dependent on dried up and the desert then ate up what was once a fertile land. If we continue with our indiscriminate water abstraction practices this is what we are risking except on a scale of millions of people. Our ground water is a precious resource that should be handed over intact from generation to generation and only used in time of dire emergency. Even if we do use it efforts must be made to replenish what has been taken.

Other than building water storage dams the government needs to immediately implement conservation measures and organise farmer organisations to save on water losses and wastage during irrigation, flooding crops as is practiced here is a grossly inefficient way of irrigation, as is the extensive leakage from watercourses and distributaries.

What is urgently needed is a serious long term plan and effort led by the government that includes stakeholders as to what are the country’s infrastructure investment priorities. Metro lines and transport networks are very important but it is the job of the government to think ten or twenty years ahead and invest in water resource projects now before it is too late. By nature water resource projects like Dams have along gestation period and can take ten to fifteen years from start to finish. We urgently need water storage otherwise as once the ground water runs out it will be a disaster, other than lip service what are we doing about it? Something for everyone to ponder over.


  1. Water, water every where, not any drop to drink.
    It is an important stanza from poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which was a unnatural scene of sea water. However you have mentioned it in support of your article printed in Daily Pakistan Today dated 8-August 2016 and tried to explain the system failure of Pakistan Government in regard to drinking water shortage in Pakistan.
    It is a good article and you have to well explained the various causes of water shortage as failure of priorities in implementation of mega projects.

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