Water stress

FOR a society whose livelihood structure is largely built on massive endowments of water, it is strange that Pakistan would be considered one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Yet that is a sad reality, and the problem is growing with alarming speed. A new study released by the IMF on challenges in managing access uses Pakistan as a case study `where, despite an abundance of water a few decades ago, lagging policies have raised the prospect of water scarcity that could threaten all aspects of the economy`. This is not the first, nor the last, warning from the world community that we are moving towards a serious crisis brought on by growing water scarcities primarily because of the way we manage our water resources. Almost 95pc of our annual supply of surface water is used in agriculture, where underpriced canal water and an untaxed agriculture sector lead to gross overuse of water. Even though Pakistan is fourth in the list of the top 10 countries in terms of total water withdrawals per year, it ranks very high in terms of water withdrawals per capita, or per unit of GDP. This shows the enormous inefficiencies that our water sector is riddled with.

For too long now, our approach to water issues has been dominated by brick-and-mortar ideas of infrastructure. We have one of the world`s largest water bureaucracies, and the only ideas that ever emanate from it relate to more dams and more hydropower systems. Nobody denies that Pakistan needs more water storage capacity, but this alone will not help avert the crisis situation we are descending into. What is also needed urgently are reforms that encourage the judicious use of water through raising efficiencies in the canal system, reforming the rules that govern allocations and price reforms that encourage investment in efficient utilisation of farm water. The policy software that governs utilisation and allocation of water needs to be reformed, public utilities need to be made more autonomous and passed into the hands of professional management, and pricing reforms are essential. The study gives the example of Burkina Faso, where pricing reforms ensured that `high-volume users subsidised low-volume users`. There is no shortage of examples from around the world of successful water-sector reforms that didn`t necessarily involve large infrastructure. Time is running out for us to start learning from them.

Published in Dawn