Water stress and climate change | Political economics

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World Water Day is celebrated on March 22 every year to highlight the importance of fresh water. The day is used to advocate for the sustainable management of water resources. Pakistan is one of the water-poor countries.

Pakistan was once rich in fresh water, with more than 5,200 cubic meters of fresh water available per capita at the time of independence. Today, availability has fallen to less than 1,000 cubic meters per capita. The monumental decline is alarming and it is feared that there will be an absolute shortage of water in the country by 2025.

Global atmospheric changes such as the buildup of greenhouse gases (GHGs) have led to an increase in global temperature. This threatens biodiversity loss, disruption of biogeochemical cycles, food insecurity, water scarcity, migration and loss of forest cover.

Rising global emissions have put enormous pressure on natural resources as well as their ability to supply. This has led to degradation of natural resources and increased pollution. Water scarcity is a great threat to human survival. Without water, human civilization cannot survive more than a few days. Yet water is often taken for granted and is an undervalued resource.

Water availability per capita is a poor indicator of our water problems. Only 32 countries have less water per person than Pakistan, which is the fifth most populous country in the world.

Population growth has been a major driver of Pakistan’s stressed waterscape. Rapid urbanization and climate change may put additional pressure on our water resources and push the country into absolute water scarcity.

Water stress is not being managed properly as climate change has started to hit the country. The stress will increase due to the increasing demand for water, mainly from a growing population, rapid and unstructured urbanization, the adverse effects of climate change and the continuous degradation of water quality which is also important than quantity. This pressure will push the country close to the threshold of absolute water scarcity.

The theme for Water Day 2022 was, Groundwater, Making the Invisible Visible. Water use in Pakistan is heavily dominated by four major crops – wheat, rice, sugar cane and cotton – which consume almost 80% of the water to generate only 5% of the GDP.

Water is a very undervalued commodity. This results in a very inefficient use of water in the country. The economic cost of poor water sanitation, floods and droughts is conservatively estimated at 4% of GDP (about $12-14 billion).

The agricultural sector consumes a huge amount of water and there are no taps. The way forward is to develop and implement water governance protocols in line with international best practices and focus on water saving and the food nexus for sustainable economic contribution to GDP.

Population growth has been a major driver of Pakistan’s stressed waterscape. Rapid urbanization and climate change will put additional pressure on our water resources and may push the country into absolute water scarcity.

A twist to the storyline is virtual water trading. The country’s water strategy of investing most of its scarce resources in a handful of crops needs to be questioned.

Climate change and water scarcity, a report by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), states that water productivity in Pakistan is less than $1 per cubic meter compared to global water productivity of around $17. Water use efficiency is $51.6 per cubic meter. Water use efficiency for the agricultural sector is particularly low as it consumes more than 90% of all water withdrawals. The trend showed a slight improvement – from $0.19 per cubic meter to $0.30 per cubic meter – from 2002 to 2017. This may be due to the shift to high value crops. The industrial sector showed a more significant improvement in water use efficiency, from $6.01 to $34.35 per cubic meter. Similarly, the service sector showed a slight improvement in water use efficiency.

The report states: “Unsustainable irrigation practices are the main reason for water scarcity in Pakistan. The agricultural sector consumes a huge amount of water. Pakistan exports water-rich agricultural products and imports products from the lower delta.

Water scarcity in Pakistan can be solved by collecting data, improving efficiency, reducing losses and improving seedlings as shown in other studies.

The limited water resource is however a facet of the problem. Water governance is the other area that requires special attention. Policy makers must play a central role in revising and reviving water governance. They need to address governance issues such as low water (Abiana) assessment and recovery.

An important aspect is to focus on areas where the public and private sectors can work together. Farmers and other groups should participate in discussions on equitable water distribution through canals and streams, improved groundwater governance and justified electricity subsidies, inter-provincial disputes and cross-border issues.

Immediate efforts are needed to build around water accounting, auditing and accountability systems. Public-private partnerships can create a portal providing information on glaciers, their storage capacity and river flow data.

Pricing should be central to water use and penalties for wasting water. Emphasis should be placed on improving infrastructure and services integrated with technology.

Further efforts are needed to improve water use in agriculture by harnessing current institutional capacities with improved technological skills by employing scientific research and new knowledge of agricultural practices through innovative methods to improve skills of farmers and other groups associated with the agricultural sector.


The author is an associate researcher at the Center for Private Sector Engagement at Sustainable Development Policy Institute


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