Pakistan’s policy has traditionally focused on surface water in the Indus Basin, often at the expense of managing groundwater. This is dangerous because the two sources are inextricably linked and cannot be separated sustainably. Policy makers have pursued inconsistent water, agriculture, climate and urban planning policies despite a series of innovative pilot projects awaiting large-scale innovation. They should pursue the catchphrase ‘combined management’, a harmonious use of surface and groundwater to maximize yields by providing an explanation consistent with their investment policies.
The groundwater map is changing rapidly. Over the past 50 years, Pakistan’s dependence on groundwater has at least tripled, making Pakistan the world’s fourth largest user of groundwater after China, India and the United States. Our size, population and economic productivity cannot justify this overreliance on groundwater. Especially because groundwater is used unregulated, freely and inefficiently, and there is no mechanism to recharge the rapidly falling water table. Once a water bank for poor farmers and rural communities, groundwater is now depleted and commercially polluted by large-scale landowners, industrial users, bottle makers and city water supply managers.
Over the past 50 years, Pakistan’s dependence on groundwater has at least tripled.
Two factors are particularly important to understand the nature of the changing groundwater map.
First, the Indus Sea Treaty is about surface water. ‘Groundwater’ is not even mentioned. Thus, the aquifer was stressed in the basins of the three eastern rivers given to India under the Treaty of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. The new commander system has helped recharge and absorb backflow, at least seasonally, as running water seeps through. In fact, canals have increased groundwater levels to previously undocumented levels, resulting in salinity and degradation of water quality. But as the ruthless abstraction increased in shallow and deep aquifers, the water table began to fall again.
read: Water scarcity Who owns groundwater in Pakistan?
However, recharge does not occur the same way in non-irrigated or non-monsoon areas. Problems range from the Upper Indus Basin in the north to the Sindh coastal region in the south. As a result, groundwater is being depleted in all parts of the country, sometimes resulting in loss of livelihoods or displacement. Rainfall patterns and monsoon floods cannot cope with these rates. This is especially true now that climate change is starting to introduce uncertainty into monsoon patterns in terms of timing, location and amount of rainfall.
Second, Pakistan has over-allocated water resources to agriculture, and the remaining quantity cannot meet domestic and commercial needs. This unintended void, created over decades, has given the end user little choice but to become their own water manager, giving them access to groundwater at will. A closer look at the water budget shows that nearly 95% of Pakistan’s total surface water is used for agriculture. Barely 5pc remain for domestic and commercial purposes.
On the other hand, nearly half of Pakistan’s groundwater is used primarily for domestic use in urban areas. In Punjab, for example, about 70% of groundwater is said to be used for drinking water and other household and commercial purposes. Punjab’s heavily degraded groundwater meets about 90% of the state’s drinking water needs. With more than 1.2 million wells and millions of individual pumping machines owned by city dwellers, this unregulated access has severely deteriorated water quality in every corner of the country. A recent study of some selected cities in Punjab, including Lahore, Multan, Sahiwal, Bahawalnagar, Lodhran and Okara, found that water quality was unsuitable for drinking water and agriculture as it affects human health and the food chain. Mining and pollution cause secondary salinity and the presence of fluoride and arsenic in the water, which degrades the quality of agricultural land.
Climate change has emerged as a major threat to surface and groundwater and their dynamic interactions. Several studies have shown that climate change causes extreme events such as floods and droughts. As streams or tributaries disappear or flow decreases, groundwater filling patterns also change. Drought periods are becoming more frequent and prolonged in parts of Pakistan, as we have recently seen in several parts of Balochistan and Sindh. Studies have shown an association between drought susceptibility and loss of soil moisture due to a decrease in the water table.
Low water table also makes the area vulnerable to heat waves. Punjab and Sindh have experienced heatwaves for centuries, but climate change has resulted in longer, stronger and more frequent heatwaves, especially in areas with low water table. Droughts can make hot days hotter, and heat waves can make dry environments drier. Scientists are now creating cases where heatwaves and droughts are more likely to overlap, further reducing soil moisture that is already very low because groundwater provides a cushion against heatwaves. Wet the soil and support greater transpiration. On the other hand, drought exacerbates heat waves. When there is little moisture in the soil, it is easy to evaporate from the sun and heat from the soil.
This situation is exacerbated by several factors, requiring federal and local governments to repeal national water policies approved in 2018. In policies signed by PTI, PPP, and PML-N, each state was committed to creating a groundwater authority to establish and enforce standards for groundwater utilization. No action has been taken except in Punjab, where the irrigation department has just started the process.
All states have agreed to regulate groundwater intake, strengthen monitoring, and prepare water budgets for subwatershed and canal orders to curb overfishing and promote aquifer recharge. This policy recognized the importance of preventing the migration of brine in order to contain the degradation of the brine using existing techniques to degrease fresh groundwater above the brine. Each state has already committed to preparing groundwater maps for each command and basin area. There is no better way than to stop sleepwalking and seize the watershed moment for Pakistan in this chaos and transition than when Pakistan celebrates March 22nd as World Water Day.
The author is an expert on climate change and development.
Posted at Serb on March 27, 2022