Why Pakistan Is Hurtling Towards Absolute Water Scarcity

Most of us tend to believe that Pakistan will fail as a state due to its poor economy, terrorism or over-militarism. The talk in strategic chat rooms or cocktail circuits is all about that. Hold on. Look at the water availability graph of Pakistan above. In the 1990s, Pakistan became a water-stressed nation. Around 2005, it entered the water-scarcity zone. After 2025, it is going to dip below the absolute water scarcity line. When Pakistan goes beyond the absolute water scarcity zone, it will also have entered the perpetual failure zone. The situation is scary due to multiple factors. The economy is hemorrhaging and the nation needs an IMF bailout. Well known. The bailout has no water element in it. Not so well known. Pakistan’s military spending is rising continually. In 2018, it spent 4 per cent of its GDP on its bloated military. Every penny spent on arms is a penny less for water. All water-related projects have either been pulled out from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or are under review with no time line whatsoever. Loan/aid from Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and China does not cover water. Pakistan’s slide into water scarcity is unchecked. There is no solution in sight. Once the absolute water scarcity level is hit, the situation will become irrevocable. Pakistan faces an existential crisis. Not from India but from water, rather the lack of it!
In 2005, the World Bank in a 121-page report titled ‘Pakistan Country Water Resources Assistance Strategy, Water Economy: Running Dry’ carried out a detailed analysis of the problem. The water problems faced by Pakistan, accurately defined, emerge from this report. First, it is solely dependent on the Indus River Basin. That is a single source, high risk fate, thrust upon it by geography and Partition. It has no additional water sources which can be brought into the system. Second, its population is exploding in a depleting water scenario. Third, Pakistan has a 30-day water storage capacity—USA has 900 days capacity, South Africa has 500 days capacity and India has 120-220 days capacity. Fourth, Pakistan’s two major water reservoirs, Tarbela and Mangla, are silted up. Both dams dip to dead water levels in summer. Fifth, conveyance of available water is only about 40 per cent efficient. Sixth, severe degradation of the resource base. Depletion of ground water levels (once the saviour of Pakistan) is alarming due to over-exploitation. All fresh water bodies are shrinking. Nearly 70 per cent of underground and lake water is unfit for drinking and harmful for crops. It is contaminated with bacteria, arsenic and other toxic substances. As per a UN report, Pakistan’s economy is the most water intensive and dependent in the world. Its water withdrawal as a percentage total renewable water resources is 74 per cent as compared to Iran (67 per cent), India (40 per cent), Afghanistan (31 per cent) and China (19.5 per cent). Seventh, flooding and drainage problems are set to increase in the lower Indus Basin due to a combination of building embankments to restrict meandering of the river and rising bed levels due to silt collection. Eighth, climate change is going to take a toll on variability of water flows in the rivers. This will either cause floods or droughts unpredictably. Ninth, Pakistan has not built a knowledge base about the complex Indus system. Infrastructure is in a poor state of maintenance. Governance deficit is high and project implementation is poor. Lastly, Pakistan is broke. No one pays for water. This was effective since ‘freedom at midnight’ circa 14 August 1947. Pakistan has never been able to upgrade its system or meet its financial challenges. The World Bank report also came out with a set of solutions which were probably never implemented. Add to this, the rate at which urbanisation is taking place. By 2025, it is estimated that 50 per cent of Pakistanis will be in urban areas. Urban areas of Pakistan, as it is, suffer from poor water infrastructure. What does the future hold for urban areas sans water?
In 2014, Pakistan came out with a grandiose document called ‘Pakistan Vision 2025’. It had seven pillars. Pillar No. 4 is Energy, Water and Food Security. As far as water was concerned, it aimed at tripling storage capacity to 90 days, increasing water usage efficiency in agriculture by 20 per cent and ensuring clean drinking water to all Pakistanis by 2025. Ever since, the situation has gone only from bad to worse like everything else in Pakistan, except its military that thrives and thrives. It is universally known that Pakistan must solve two basic problems to come out of this tangle. One is to reduce or control population. The other is to increase water storage capacity. Ever since the Zia-ul-Haq era when Pakistan became more Islamic, population control went out of the window and its population graph gas only shown an uptick. So, far from population reduction or control, its population is only going to increase from the present 204 million to approximately250 million. It means that if water availability remains as it is, the problem will only keep compounding geometrically till 2025 and beyond.
Let us turn to water storage. Pakistan’s main projects to increase water storage are the Kalabagh and Diamer-Bhasha dams, both on the Indus. The Kalabagh Dam was proposed to be built at Mianwali first in 1979. However, in the past four decades, the project has been announced and closed cyclically despite assurance of World Bank assistance. Essentially, it is an inter-state political problem of Punjab vs Sindh and KPK. No visible solution is in sight. The foundation stone for the Diamer-Bhasha Dam was laid in 2011. It is upstream of Tarbela in Gilgit. In 2008, its cost was estimated as US $12.6 billion. It was to be built with World Bank and Asian Development Bank assistance. Both refused to finance the project since it was in disputed territory and they wanted a No-Objection Certificate from India! Then the project was included in CPEC. China wanted US $14 billion for it and some stiff controls which were unacceptable to Pakistan. It was dropped from CPEC in 2017. Since then, Imran Khan has been urging overseas Pakistanis to contribute generously for the dam. As per some Pakistani media reports in March, collections reached 10 Billion Pakistani Rupees (US $70 million). At the current rate of collection, by the time the dam is built, it will be too late for Pakistan. Other projects are minor in comparison. As time passes, building these dams will become even more chimerical.
The third angle where Pakistan can focus on is water management. It involves, water discipline, water payments, water recharging, waste water recycling, ground water usage regulation, changing lifestyles, changing cropping and agricultural patterns, industrial and effluent control etc etc. However, that needs effective law and order and tax collection machinery. In the current scenario of weak governance, political inability, economic chaos and military usurpation of resources, all this is la la land dreams.
So where does it leave Pakistan? Nowhere, really. However, let us carry this analysis forward. What will the fallout be? As time marches, the cycle of water scarcity, droughts, floods, domestic mismanagement will shorten, and the frequency will increase. That will lead to social tensions at one level. At another level, the political turmoil will increase between states. This will be based simply on (non) availability of water. Pakistan went into a ‘cash crop’ ‘high yield’ agriculture system as has been the global trend. Modern agriculture needs adequate quality and quantity of water. Absence of both could lead to disaster. Agriculturally, Pakistan will take a huge hit. Agriculture contributes 20 per cent to the national GDP. It remains the biggest employer in Pakistan (40 per cent). Both will be adversely affected. Estimates are that climate change will reduce agricultural output by 8-10 per cent. Add an equal amount due to water shortage. That means 20 per cent reduction in agricultural output. It translates into a compounding GDP loss of 4-5 per cent. Factor in a young population, poor education and the economy not being able to turn around. Turmoil is around the corner. In the absence of any solution on the ground and Pakistan continuing in its merry militaristic geopolitical ways, the whole system can collapse sooner than later.
From an Indian perspective, one must monitor the situation very carefully. There are already attempts to externalise the situation and blame the entire crisis on India. Statements by some of our political leaders, out of sheer ignorance, that they will block Indus flowing into Pakistan will only fuel this inimical sentiment. It might escalate the current Indo-Pak tensions into a much higher level. The best thing to do is play by the Indus Water Treaty rule book. That is enough to turn the screws on Pakistan. It is also important that it is strategically communicated to Pakistan and its people regarding the water crisis they are heading into and that it is of their own making. There also has to be a strategic communication that Pakistan can afford water and other necessities if only it reduces military expenditure. For instance, Pakistan spent around US $11.5 billion (approximately) on its military in 2018. If that is reduced by 25 per cent, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam can be funded fully and internally. Much more can be done to stabilise the water situation. Additionally, if it mends fences with India and normalises relations, it can even dream of some water normalcy. The long-term key to alleviating Pakistan’s water problems lies with India. From another perspective, if Pakistan gets into the situation it seems to be heading into, India should be very happy not to pose any ‘existential threat’ to Pakistan. It will be a monkey off our back. Also, it must be seen whether its ‘Iron Friend’ will come to its rescue and if so in what form. One thing is for sure. Most of the power projects in CPEC are thermal power projects. Thermal power plants need lot of water. So the situation is only going to get even worse. In all cases, the geostrategic equations will change and India must be prepared for that.
(Lt. Gen. PR Shankar has served four decades in the Indian Army in multiple operational areas and is currently a professor at the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. Major CN Anand is a retired sapper officer who is an alumnus of IIT Madras. He has authored the book ‘Tarbela Damned — Pakistan Tamed’ and has carried out extensive research on Pakistan’s water resources. Views expressed here are personal)

3 responses to “Why Pakistan Is Hurtling Towards Absolute Water Scarcity”

  1. Sir, just a minor correction regarding the population of Pakistan. As per their census carried out in 2017, their population was 208 million (213 if POK is included) and not 204 million. Besides, their census figures are disputed mostly by Sindh parties, who complain that the population of Sindh and especially Karachi have been under reported. Independent analysts state that the population should be around 215 million, instead of 208. Considering all of this, and another two years since their census data was recorded, their current total population should be around 225-230 million.

  2. An excellent article with in-depth analysis and detailed statistics. Hopefully someone in Pak reads this and takes cognisance of the real issues facing Pak. Army appears to be the root cause of all ills in Pak …. it is over stating the threat from India and spending beyond its capacity on weapons rather than development. China and other nations providing weapons are more than happy and so are the Pak generals. There does not appear to be any silver lining in sight for the Pak public.

  3. An excellent article on a very significant issue. Pakistan's collapse shall have serious implications for India. It has been stated in the past that future wars shall be fought over water. China is working hard to control the Water Reservoir of Tibet. Hopefully, India draws right lessons to improve the deteoriating water conditions for herself. There is a need for an vigorous awareness programme at national level to prevent wastage and promote conservation !!

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