Pakistan’s Water Security Crisis Continues

In October 2021, the fragile state of Pakistan’s water security was forced back into the spotlight with a contested proposal to revisit the 1991 Water Accord. The original accord is a water-sharing agreement between Pakistani provinces that included plans to establish more reservoirs, thereby significantly increasing the country’s water resources. Given that these facilities were never built, the Federal Minister for Water Resources Moonis Elahi offered to revisit or redraft the accord. However, Sindh province’s Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah rejected the offer on October 11th. He claimed that his provincial government would not accept any alternative water-sharing agreement. He also called for the strengthening of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) to prevent the province of Punjab from opening link canals and reducing the amount of water available in Sindh. “Our grievance is very simple that we want the federal government to strengthen IRSA to enable the body to implement the water accord in its true letter and spirit,” he said. In response, Mr. Elahi called for all stakeholders to engage in dialogue over water distribution.

This exchange between high-level ministers highlights the importance of context-specific evaluations of water security. Each province in Pakistan has different rates of water insecurity and different levels of political influence. Punjab province is politically dominant as it has two-thirds of the population and takes a large amount of water for irrigated agriculture. At the same time, the arid southern & western regions get relatively little. As such, any future negotiations require sensitivity and an awareness of the fear that less influential states have, the concern being that Punjab can take advantage of them.

Pakistan’s water issues stem from its geography. The Hindu Kush-Himalayan Region is one of the largest stores of fresh water in the world. Glaciers in this region supply the seven great rivers of Asia, including South Asia’s Indus, Ganges & Brahmaputra. However, the Himalayas are experiencing rapid glacial melt due to the effects of climate change. Temperatures in this region have seen a 1.5-degree increase since 1982 — a sustained trend higher than the global average. Climate change also affects the region’s monsoonal rain patterns, making them more sporadic. As a result, this rainfall will have higher levels of runoff and reduced water capture. Khalid Rana, the IRSA’s Director of Operations, insisted that these trends have dire implications for Pakistan, stating that “Changing weather patterns are going to cause major water shortages in Pakistan if we continue to go ahead with exiting management and storage systems.”

Pakistan is an arid nation, and 80 per cent of its cropland requires irrigation drawn from rivers and wells due to the long dry season. However, the systems currently in place for water distribution are highly inefficient. Up to 50 per cent of Pakistan’s captured water is lost due to leakage and evaporation. Furthermore, poor irrigation leads to saturation, salinization and erosion. This process makes the land unusable for agriculture, and therefore negatively affects Pakistan’s food supply.

Pakistan also experiences a high level of downstream vulnerability. Its six main rivers all originate outside its borders in India and China. With these countries scheduled to build an array of dams for water storage and energy purposes, Pakistan could potentially see a massive decrease in the water supplied by its rivers. Moreover, it has tense geopolitical relations with nuclear-armed India, which exacerbate these concerns. As such, Pakistan faces a dilemma caused by the combination of rising population levels and decreasing river and groundwater caused by climate change and overuse. This has major implications for Pakistan’s regional water treaties that are based on a fixed volume rather than a percentage of rivers’ total flow. It means that over time, upstream countries will end up with a higher percentage of diminishing flows. The most prominent example of such a treaty is the 1960 Indus Water Treaty that the World Bank mediated. Under this agreement, India receives priority rights over the eastern three rivers’ waters, while Pakistan receives priority rights over the western three. But, as the eastern three only amounted to 20 per cent of the six rivers’ total flow at the time, India was also allowed to take a fixed amount from the western rivers. This agreement is problematic because Pakistan’s three western rivers are much more dependent on glacier melt. Hence, Pakistan is suffering a significant decline in available water flow due to global warming. In contrast, India has seen a considerable increase in its percentage of total allocated water.

Pakistan’s water security crisis presents a complex problem with severe internal and external security implications. However, international solutions are largely infeasible due to political tensions. As such, innovative and internally based solutions are necessary to affect change in the short term. One possible solution is to improve urban planning to increase water capture. A prime example of efficient water management via urban planning is the ancient Cambodian capital of Angkor Wat which had a tripartite water system and almost 100 per cent water capture. It is possible to implement this kind of urban planning in major cities like Islamabad, which have a high level of government capital. However, in reality, most of Pakistan’s growing population and associated suburbs live in poverty. These suburbs are primarily comprised of vernacular architecture, meaning there is no central planning and, therefore, no way to implement an efficient and consistent water capture system.

An alternative solution is for the government to invest in irrigation infrastructure as this sector uses such a high percentage of water. The current practice involves flooding the land, which leads to salinization and unsustainable levels of evaporation. Instead, a more targeted system should be implemented. A section of the river’s flow should be diverted into underground storage, which can then be used for drip irrigation through covered channels and returned to the main river as necessary to maximize water capture efficiency. Changing global climatic conditions will require Pakistan to renegotiate agreements, refocus national policy and implement innovative solutions to address water insecurity.