Over the years, multiple democratic and military governments of Pakistan have been unsuccessful in providing their country with a formal water policy. This comes as a major setback since Pakistan is primarily a ‘water economy’ and faces exponentially growing problems of water scarcity, climate change, increased population demand for water and mismanagement of water for industrial and agricultural consumption.
There have been many drafts that came into existence at the national and provincial levels. However, none have been approved as a policy. The National Water Policy (NWP) draft was initially prepared in 2005 after a World Bank comprehensive policy study, however, once at the federal cabinet this draft could not see the light of day. In 2010, the decision to revise the NWP was taken to incorporate the recent developments in the water sector and the growing impact of climate change on water resources. A joint committee was formed to finalise the water policy. In 2012, the committee presented its final version to the ministry of law and justice who were of the view that the constitution does not provide any provision for the NWP as this was a provincial matter. In 2015, upon the prime minister’s instructions, the updated NWP was made available to all stakeholders for review and updated accordingly. After much debate and consensus building among the federal and provincial governments, the NWP was sent to the Council of Common Interests in 2017 where despite being on the meeting agenda, it was largely ignored.
Given that water is a highly politicised issue, the need of the hour is consensus building and taking forth difficult decisions which are beneficial for all. Water is everyone’s business, therefore, for an effective water policy we need representation from all sectors of the economy and an understanding of the fundamental changes that have to be undertaken to safeguard our finite water resources. These policies should reflect a concise structure with well-defined objectives, action items, implementation methodologies and a time frame to achieve all its set aims and goals.
Land, water and geography are the major natural resources of Pakistan to build and sustain its future development. Our water policy should be focused on capitalising on these three for expanding the water supply. Pakistan is an agro-based economy where agriculture accounts for up to 20% of GDP. Pakistan recently achieved the highest growth rate of 5.28% in the last decade largely due to the agriculture sector recovering from 0.27% to 3.46% growth. Agriculture is also the largest consumer of water. It is estimated that up to 95% of all surface water and groundwater is utilised in irrigation. Therefore, water is the essential factor driving our economy via water embedded in the production of various agricultural outputs and further commodities. According to recommendations for Pakistan water policy framework by Hisaar Foundation, the water economy has the potential to achieve a billion dollar output for each million acre-feet of water utilised for agriculture.
There are an additional 22 million acres of land that can be irrigated by extending the Indus basin irrigation networks to arid areas of southern Punjab, eastern Sindh, southern K-P and eastern Balochistan. The policy should bring forward future exploration and development of new water infrastructure as well as management and repair and replacement of the existing systems. The water policy should target promoting sustainable use of our available water resources by increasing the current water efficiency. There is a huge potential for increased water supply by increasing our canal irrigation water efficiency which currently stands at 33% in comparison to 90% in the developed countries. Repairing the downstream leakages, smart metering and creating effective solutions for reducing the demand for water form the core of increasing water efficiency. Pakistan can store only 10% of its annual rivers flow as compared to the world average of 40%. The absence of these translates into massive economic losses. For instance, three years of repeated floods in 2010, 2011 and 2012 inflicted severe damage on the national economy, reducing its potential economic growth by half. The economy grew on average at a rate of 2.9% per year instead of its potential growth rate of 6.5%.
Another key feature the water policy should address is the rights and entitlements of all users of water. Water rights in the Indus basin are linked to land ownership where preferential land allotments along the canal system ensures that only the rich and influential few control the access to water. Allocating water for rural water-deprived areas should be a priority as the social and economic development in these areas cannot be achieved without access to water. The water policy should call for an equitable distribution of water. Water sharing among districts should be distributed according to the share of ground water, surface water and precipitation combined. Per capita water entitlements should be established to determine the water supply for domestic use and beyond the set entitlement. The users should pay the economic value of water.
At the international level, the Indus Water Treaty governs Pakistan’s rights to water from the Indus basin shared with India. The treaty has stood the test of time even though the growing environmental and economic pressures on either side of the border give way to water resource conflict with national security implications. The water policy must address the need to go beyond the treaty as it does not cover groundwater usage and the impact of climate change on water availability. For transboundary water management, a regional perspective must be adopted besides India; both Afghanistan and China must be included as our river systems originate there and we currently have no treaties with either.
The water policy should strive to achieve improved water quality for all purposes. In Pakistan, the percentage of wastewater released without any form of treatment has been estimated at 82%. Establishment of water treatment facilities and developing and adopting cost-effective technologies for filtration and disinfection of water utility should be a priority of the water policy to provide people with safe water consumption. An estimate reveals that drinking contaminated water causes up to 40% of the diseases in Pakistan which result in income losses of Rs25–58 billion annually, accounting for approximately 0.6–1.44% of our GDP.
In order to achieve the targets of the water policy, large investments in the water sector are required. The policy should feature a plan for attracting local investors such as local banks and financial institutions, public-private partnerships to raise the funds for water infrastructure and development projects, and subsequently not depend on foreign aid. The opportunity for gains form this emerging market of water scarcity and investments in the entire value chain of water need to be capitalised upon. Besides these investments in human capital are also required to bring forth a generation of water professionals to meet the challenges of this sector with scientific knowledge and research.
As Pakistan enters its 71st year, the government needs to move beyond highlighting water issues as a part of the National Climate Change Policy and the National Drinking Water Policy towards a comprehensive NWP to address the challenges of the water crisis that we are facing.