Pakistan Land Turning Into Desert

Editor’s Note. This is a chapter from Barrister Mansur Khan’s forthcoming book on Water Crisis. This being a lengthy chapter, has been serlialised for the benefit of the readers.

By Barrister Mansur Sarwar Khan

A. Nature of Water Crisis: Water crisis is a term that refers to the scarcity and quality of available water resources relative to human demand. However, nature of crisis can change from one context to other. In global context, according to Wikipedia, the following symptoms are reported for water crisis:

  • Inadequate access to drinking water for 1.1 billion people;
  • Inadequate access to water for sanitation and wastewater disposal for 2.5 billion people;
  • Groundwater excessive use leading diminished agricultural yields;
  • Overuse and pollution of water resources harming biodiversity; and
  • Regional conflict over scarce water resources sometime resulting into warfare.

Internationally, an indicator is devised to see if a certain country can be classified as water stressed or water scarce country to determine the emerging seriousness of water crisis. This indicator is generally termed as quantity of water available per year per person. If this per capita annual water availability in a country ranges between 1000-2000 m3, this status is said to be water stressed and if this amount of water drops below 1000 m3, the locality in focus is considered to be facing water scarcity situation.

As far as water availability per capita per year is concerned, sources like Amin Dadbhoy reports huge water distribution distortions in global context. For example, on one hand there those where water scarcity is too acute like Kuwait, Ghaza and UAE where annual per capita water availability is around 10 m3, 52 m3 and 58 m3, respectively. Opposite to such water poor countries, there are some water rich countries, where annual per capita water availability is very high, for example: French Guiana (812,121 m3), Iceland (609, 319 m3), Guyana (316,689 m3), Surinam (292, 566 m3), Congo (275,679, m3), Canada (94,353 m3) and New Zealand (86,554 m3).

The reported uneven water availability results because of the nature of regions. The ongoing climatic changes, it is predicted that humid regions will receive even more rain and arid and semi arid zones may get lesser and erratic rains in the future. According to an estimate, climatic change may cause another 20 % water scarcity in drought-prone areas. Because of the population growth and climatic changes, water crisis in many non-humid regions will aggravate.

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In case of Pakistan, water crisis is much more complex and multi-facet phenomenon. For example, per capita water availability that was 5, 300 m3 in 1951 is expected to drop to 850 m3 in 2013. This is mainly because of the population growth from 34 million in 1951 to 207 million projected in 2013. If population increase in 62 years is six times, the corresponding decrease in per capita water availability is a natural outcome as presented in Table 1.

Table 1:  Past, present and future water availability per capita per year in Pakistan

This reported water scarcity becomes even more serious concern when we look at the degree of control of water sources and percentage of water used in Pakistani context. As presented in Figure 1, the percentage of water originating outside of Pakistan’s territory is 75% or more. When viewed this status in a very hostile environment, this complication becomes even more complex. Added to this very low degree of control, this water crisis takes another boost when we look at water exploitation index.  As shown in Figure2, Pakistan’s use of water as % of total renewable water resources, it is around 75 % plus. This high water exploitation index puts Pakistan in a category of severe water stressed situation.

Figure 2: Water stress status in Asia-Pacific

In addition to the above referred indicator of water availability per capita per year, those countries where overwhelmingly water consuming sub-sector is agriculture, there is need to consider annual irrigation water required or needed versus that is available. In the context of South Asian sub-continent, agriculture sector consumes 99%, 97%, 92% and 86% of total water available in Nepal, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, respectively. Perhaps per capita water available may have to be complemented with additional indicators to identify the real nature of prevailing water crisis in this region.

For Pakistan, therefore, it is important that we also look at the availability of water for irrigation. We had 9.2 million hectares irrigated land in 1950-53 which has gone up to 18.02 million hectares in 2000 -03; an increase of almost 100 % over a period of 50 years. As shown in Table 2, there has been an increase in water diversions to canals at different stages but not in the same proportion as horizontal expansion in irrigated land.

Table 2.  Historical Canal Water Diversions in the Indus Basin of Pakistan

Key Influences Period Canal Diversions MAF / (billion m3)
Kharif Rabi Annual
Pre – Partition 1940-1947 47.6/ (58.5) 20.2/ (24.9) 67.8/ (83.4)
Partition 1947-1948 46.3/ (57.0) 22.4/ (27.6) 68.8/ (84.6)
Dispute 1948-1960 51.5/ (63.4) 24.7/ (30.4) 76.3/ (93.8)
Pre – Mangla 1960-1967 60.3/ (74.2) 27.6/ (34.0) 88.0 / (108.2)
Post – Mangla 1967-1975 65.3/ (80.3) 30.2 (37.1) 95.5 (117.4)
Post – Tarbela 1975-1980 68.1/ (83.7) 38.2/ (47.0) 106.3 / (130.7)
Post – Tarbela 1980-1985 68.4/ (84.1) 37.3/ (45.9) 105.7 (130.0)
Post – Tarbela 1985-1990 66.3/ (81.6) 37.7/ (46.4) 104.1/ (128.0)
Post – Tarbela 1990-1995 66.3/ (81.5) 38.5/ (47.3) 104.7/ (128.8)
Post – Tarbela 1975-1995 67.2 (82.7) 38.0 (46.7) 105.2/ (129.4)
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Data Source: Water Resources Management Directorate, WAPDA.

Based on meteorological data from 18 stations country-wide, annual potential evapo-transpiration varies from 1.20 m in Muree to 2.0 m in Jackababad.  Similar estimates of irrigation requirements are made for each province of Pakistan. When we compare these annual irrigation requirements, based on areas irrigated, we observe, as shown in Table 3, another dimension of the water crisis. Since water use in agriculture sector in Pakistan is around 97%, the nature of water crisis becomes very critical for food security and livelihood of the people. If one province that the dominant source of agricultural production, overall water deficit per unit area irrigated is going to keep productivity down and consequently food security at risk.

Table 3. Comparison of Surface water allocations and Water Requirements among four Provinces of Pakistan

Description Punjab Sind NWFP Baluchistan
Annual Irrigation Requirements (m) 1.26 1.34 1.16 1.19
Annual Water Allocation as per 1991 Accord in BCM (MAF) 68.81 (55.94) 59.98 (48.76) 10. 80 (8.78) 4.76 (3.87)
Canal  Irrigated  Areas (million hectares)

in 2000-03

11.04 1.96 0.77 0.55
Annual water available per unit area irrigated (m) 0.62 3.06 1.40 0.87
Deficit (-) or Surplus (+) in m/ha -0.64 + 1.72 + 0.24 -0.32

Punjab has canal irrigated area about 11.04 million hectares which constitute 77 % of the entire country.  Almost same ratio holds for the cropped areas that are irrigated exclusively either by tube-wells or wells.  Shortage of more than half of irrigation water required has caused deficit irrigation causing productivity concerns. Now, this crisis is not brought either by nature nor by India; it is home-made and we have no option except to find ways and means to face it off.

Because of sever water shortages as presented above; tube-well irrigation got an exponential growth over a period of 50 years. Recent data suggest that over 1.2 million tube-wells are installed in the country and more than one million these tube-wells are pumping about 35 MAF of groundwater only in Punjab  to irrigate 7.17 million hectares conjunctively with canals and 2.74 million hectares exclusively by the tube-wells. Without getting into arguments and counter-arguments, this is clear and solid ground reality that there is huge water crisis in the food granary of Pakistan. It is interesting to note that 71.1% irrigated area of Punjab receives either exclusive tube-well water or conjunctively surface and ground water are being used. In contrast to Punjab, the share of tube-well irrigation in other provinces is almost insignificant.

On one hand, dependence on groundwater in Punjab is a blessing as quantity being used is almost three times that of surface water storage that Pakistan has built. Moreover, this explosion of pumping technology helped to control the twin menace of water-logging and salinity in this region. Imagine a possible severity of water crisis in a scenario where there would have been no use of groundwater at all. It would have definitely flabbergasting and horrifying outcome.

On the other hand, this practice of delaying its fatal impact has put the entire sustainability of irrigated of Punjab at risk. In an insane absence of institutional support system for groundwater management and due to shortage of canal water, farmers of Punjab are forced to use groundwater where almost two-third tube-wells are pumping sodic water for irrigation. As farmers are left on their own to decide about installation of tube-wells for groundwater extraction, they can only avoid pumping brackish water that gives tastes of excessive salinity but sodic / alkaline waters are, usually, assumed to be alright. This is why that more two-third tube-wells are adding slow poison to irrigated lands and this is becoming a significant factor for low yields in this region. This is another aspect of the seriousness of the emerging colossal water crisis.

At present, on one hand, our entire focus is confined to either blaming India for stealing water or debating on building Kala-Bagh Dam. Sure, there is a lot of truth in it but should we opt a destructive way of war where there will be no-winners or look at the options that are still available to overcome such crisis? Obviously, war is NOT an option, period.

to be continued……