Saturday, July 13, 2013

Groundwater depletion: another crisis looming in Pakistan

LAHORE: The depletion of groundwater in Pakistan is likely to set an alarm bells ringing in the newly elected government which is already hit hard by massive power shortage, terrorism and economic downturn.
The underground water in is running out on fast pace as per capita availability of water drops to 990 cubic meters in 2013 as compared to 5,650 cubic meters in 1947. While India has 1,600 cubic metres of water per person per year while major European countries have up to twice as much ranging from 2,300 cubic metres in Germany to 3,000 cubic metres in France.
Owing to lurking water crises, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has placed Pakistan in red zone categorizing it as water-stressed country which is likely to face an acute water shortage over the next five years due to the lack of water availability for irrigation, industry and human consumption. If the downward trend prevails, it is likely that ground water table will nosedive more and in the result per capita availability will touch 800 cubic metres by 2020.
Moreover, the United Nations has lined up Pakistan among the “water hotspots” of Asia-Pacific Region, saying that the country faces major threats of increasing water scarcity, high water utilisation, deteriorating water quality and climate change risk.
According to Punjab irrigation department, Pakistan’s important government entity that monitors the level and quality of water before 1947, water table is going down 3 feet per year. Quoting the example of Lahore, most urbanised and densely populated city of Pakistan, it said that 20 years back water is extracted at 20 or 40 feet and now drilling has to be done at 800 feet to reach the water. Unchecked installation of tube wells aggravated situation.  As per estimates, there is a continuous increase in the development of groundwater irrigation by tube wells. In the country the numbers of public and private tube wells installed (as per the source of Economic survey of Pakistan) in 2000-01 were 659,278 while in 2012-13 the amount of tube wells installed rose to 1175,073.  With this phenomenon annual extraction of water has swelled up to 51 million-acre feet of water.
Irrigation Research Institute (IRI) deputy director Dr. Muhammad Javed said that multiple reasons accounted for the water depletion. “One of the major one is over-extraction or over-pumping of ground water. Water is being sucked out but recharge system that refill the ground water is not in place or mismanaged. Total discharge (withdrawal) of ground water is at 37 Million Acres Feet (MAF) against recharge (refilling) at 30 MAF, he added and said that it showed that a big gap is between discharge and recharge system.
Second vital cause for water scarcity is poor planning to store water. Pakistan has just 3 dams and scores of small barrages as compared to china having 22,000 and India 4,200 small and big dams. “Pakistan’s storage capacity is just for 30 days, whereas India has the ability to store water for 120-220 days,” Water and Power Development Authority Engineer Dr Rahim Buksh responded to a query. Meanwhile, Egypt has 1,000 days water storage capacity only on River Nile, America 900 days on River Colorado, Australia 600 and South Africa has the ability to store water for 500 days on River Orange.
“The per capita storage capacity in the United States stands at 6,150 cubic metres, in Australia 5,000 cubic metres but in Pakistan it is just 132 cubic metres that show how vulnerable 180 million Pakistanis are in terms of water availability,” he went on saying.
Sedimentation is also adding the existing problem. The WAPDA document discloses that Pakistan has also lost its capacity to store water by 27 percent (4.37 million feet of water) from 16.28 MAF to 11.91 MAF because of sedimentation, as 4.99 MAF gets stored in the Mangla Dam alone. Tarbela was built in 1974 with the storage capacity of 9.69 MAF, which has now reduced in 2011 by 31 percent (3.02 MAF) to 6.77 MAF. Mangla Dam that was built in 1967 with the capacity to store water of 5.87 million acres feet of water has witnessed reduction in its storage capacity by 15 percent (0.88MAF) to 4.99 MAF. Likewise, Chashma barrage was built in 1971 with the ability to store 0.72 MAF water but owing to the sedimentation, its storage capacity has dwindled by 65 percent (0.47MAF) to just 0.25MAF.
 The document also predicts that Pakistan will lose more capacity to store water by up to 37 percent (5.95MAF) in 2025, if water managers of the country did not correct the policies and built the dams on Pakistan rivers. “It is more unfortunate that the top political leadership and establishment are not paying heed towards improving the water storage capacity of the country,” Mr. Buksh added.
When talked to Director Rana Muhammad Iqbal at Directorate of Land Reclamation, part of Irrigation Department of Punjab, considered custodian of water strongly recommended the construction of Kalabagh dam as sole solution to resolve water storage and its infringe benefits in terms of rising groundwater table in Pakistan.
He said that cropping intensity was also another factor playing its role in drastic reduction of water table. “Earlier cropping intensity was 66 percent which means that we cultivate crop one time in a year and farmer needed average water to irrigate lands. Now cropping intensity rose up to 150 to 200 percent showing the fact that in one year more than 3 or 4 crops are cultivated and to meet growing demand of water, excessive water has to be extracted,” he added   In Pakistan Punjab, more than 50% of crop water requirement comes from groundwater, producing the majority of food in Pakistan. If  irrigated lands suffers water shortage, Pakistan will have to face massive food insecurity.
Most crucial reason for water table decrease is non-existence of legislation. Ground water makes up 55 percent and surface water accounts for 45 percent of total water. It is astonishing fact that there are lot of rules and regulation for surface water but to regulate ground water, no law does exist. None of successive government bothered to evolve even a basic infrastructure for groundwater, Environment department official Nasim Shah said.
Over extraction of ground water has caused fast depletion of aquifer which has raised alarming levels of bacterial contamination. Though, the surface water is available, but due to ill planning and mismanaging the cheaper sources of surface water. There is a dire need of switching from ground water to surface water, now with realization; Pakistan has been blessed with abundance of availability of surface and ground water resources to the tune of 128300 million m3 and 50579 million m3 per year respectively (The Pakistan National Conservation Strategy,).
Currently, over 45 percent of Pakistan’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. Since quality of drinking water supply is poor, with bacterial contamination, arsenic, fluoride and nitrate, incidence of water-borne diseases is increasing rapidly, Director Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) Lubna Naheed revealed. High population growth rate, urbanization, industrialization and new environmental constraints are aggravating the problem, she said.
Ministry of water and power report (2011-2012) pinpointed that in Pakistan, water was excessively wasted at houses, offices, markets and factories. Fresh and drinking water is used for washing, gardening and other non-drinkable purposes. “Besides wastage, burgeoning population, climate change, lack of water reservoirs and manipulation of Jhelum and Chenab rivers by India are other key factors squeezing water availability in Pakistan,” report claimed.
The Wapda official also said that in 2010-11, around 54.5MAF water went down to sea, which demonstrates the demand of the erection of huge dams on the River Indus. “The government needs to become proactive for timely required financial releases, he said, adding Wapda had placed the demand of releasing Rs100 billion for 35 water projects but it has been committed only Rs24.120 billion. This is the main reason that Wapda has failed to increase the water availability in the country, he said.
On the eve of the World Water Day to highlight significance of water resources and the challenges faced by the water sector in Pakistan, the Engineers Institution Pakistan (IEP) in collaboration with the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Pakistan (IEEEP) organised a seminar at WAPDA House. The seminar was chaired by WAPDA Member (Water) Hasnain Afzal. The WAPDA member said that the situation can only be improved by enhancing water storage capacity in the country.
Groundwater Monitoring and Management Cell, irrigation department Punjab, supervisor Tariq Yamin said that department was hiring a foreign qualified consultant to build a mechanism and design a practical model to regulate the groundwater. It will spotlight the pressing problems with pragmatic solutions. “We have already developed Term of Reference in this regard. GIS cell will give its inputs in making framework. We have also started outlining the legislation to check water depletion. After completing the paperwork, it will be sent to Punjab assembly and soon first law to regulate ground water will take its course. Department has installed a number of instruments to analyse level and quality of groundwater even with meagre resources and manpower as our aim is to serve the people to hold water,” he added
The world overdraws 200 km3 of its global groundwater 'bank account' every year. Probably more than 20% of this overdraft occurs in Pakistan placing this country's food and livelihood security at great risk. And if the situation continues, then the destiny of Pakistan will certainly be none other than the drought, hunger, poverty and darkness as the prosperity lies in building new reservoirs in the country.
The writer is Lahore based journalist and can be contacted at,

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