Can we achieve a ‘blue revolution’?

Pakistan is hovering dangerously close to the edge of being categorised as a water-scarce country. Already, multitudes of people living in haphazardly planned cities, and across rural Pakistan, lack access to water which is safe for human consumption.

Freshwater availability in Pakistan has declined sharply over the past seventy years. There are many other countries which do a much better job using even scarcer water supplies more efficiently, to not only grow crops, but also to meet the needs of their citizenry. Despite edging towards water scarcity, Pakistan is still wasting and polluting our freshwater supplies at alarming rates.

Well over 90% of Pakistan’s freshwater is used for agricultural purposes. Pakistan not only uses irrigation water but also ground water to meet its agricultural needs. According to Nature, a leading scientific journal, Pakistan is one of the largest exporters of groundwater in the form of crops it sells internationally. Our export crops are using way too much of our precious groundwater, which is being extracted at much beyond the natural recharge rates.

Large farmers who can afford to use electric or diesel pumps to extract groundwater to grow crops for exports have done well. The government has also earned desperately-needed foreign exchange from encouraging use of groundwater to increase agricultural exports. However, the unrelenting groundwater extraction has significantly lowered the groundwater table, especially for poorer farmers, who lack the resources needed to extract ever-receding groundwater. In the longer run, all farmers, and the rest of us, will have to pay the price of this unsustainable exploitation of groundwater, as more of our springs, other surface water bodies, and wetlands run dry, and as our groundwater aquifers become dangerously depleted.

Already, Pakistan is among countries that have the highest urbanisation rates in all of Asia. A major reason for which are the push factors which are driving poorer farmers lacking access to land and water to grow crops to flock to urban slums.

Given this situation, it is vital to reconsider the wisdom of thoughtlessly wasting groundwater to grow crops to earn meagre export revenues. Thus far, we have been doing just the opposite. For the past decade, the government has been trying to woo Gulf states to lease state land and extract deeper reserves of groundwater to grow export crops. The Chinese interest in agricultural investments in Pakistan can further worsen groundwater extraction rates. Yet, there is little evidence of regulatory measures being put in place to prevent that from happening.

We keep hearing about how much water is wasted in Pakistan because we don’t have enough dams to store river waters before they discharge into the Arabian Sea. However, it is problematic to view the flows to the sea as wastage. Environmentalists estimate that the average flow to the sea has been reduced by more than 80%. This declining outflow adversely impacts the health of the lower Indus, due to seawater intrusion. It is also harming the delta and valuable ecosystems, which provide a source of livelihood and protection against storms.

This thoughtless attitude towards the conservation and use of our precious freshwater resources has produced dire consequences. The Supreme Court commissioned report last year found over 80% of water supplies in Sindh to be contaminated with sewage and industrial waste. The percentage of contamination was ninety for Karachi.

Another international study this past year also found alarming levels of arsenic in our groundwater supplies, which is another cause for alarm, especially for people who do not have the luxury to purchase bottled water. Then there is a looming threat of climate change, and our growing population, which means the pressure to provide access to more water and food continues to grow.

Pakistan needs to think of ensuring water security as a national survival issue. Our newly announced national water policy aims to dedicate more resources to water management but whether it will be able to achieve a “blue revolution” across all provinces, and secure more equitable and comprehensive water use, conservation and distribution, remains to be seen.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2018.

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