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Five myths about water in Pakistan

William Young's picture

Persistent myths, which can misguide policy, are barriers to improving water security for the people of Pakistan. Here are five:

First, this problem of water security is often presented as one of water scarcity. But Pakistan is a water-rich country – only 35 countries have more renewable water. It is true that measured for each person, Pakistan is approaching a widely recognized scarcity level of 1000 cubic meters each year. But there are 32 countries that have less water for each person and most of these countries are much wealthier and use less water for each person. Pakistan needs to shift its focus from scarcity to managing water demand and producing more from each drop of water. It needs to make water allocation more efficient and fair, and offer incentives that reflect how scarce water is to encourage wise use.

Second, Pakistan worries about  a lack of reservoir storage. Common but misleading measures cited are “storage volume per person” and storage in terms of “average days of water demand”, typically compared to other countries, while ignoring differences in flow variability. Storage is used to buffer the variability of flows to match the time varying pattern of demand. In the Indus flows do not vary greatly between years, partly because of the significant storage the glaciers represent – an asset most countries lack. Thus, Pakistan has little need for reservoir storage from one year to the next. Rather, it needs storage to even out within year variations associated with the monsoon. However, unlike many countries, in Pakistan the timing of flows is not vastly different to the timing of demand, although some storage is needed to capture the monsoon peak and release this water later in the Kharif season and in the early Rabi season. Additional storage would certainly yield additional useable water, but any increase in water use will inevitably reduce the flow to the sea, which is already at an environmentally unsustainable low level. Given Pakistan’s low economic productivity of water in irrigation and rapid rates of reservoir sedimentation, it is hard to justify the costs of major new storages. Hydropower generation does justify new dams, but these could be run-of-the-river facilities (not storage), with lower social and environmental impacts.

Third, there is concern over the loss of the Indus basin glaciers. Upper Indus flows are strongly dependent on snow melt (22 percent) and glacial melt (41 percent). Climate change appears to be affecting rainfall, snowfall and glacier melt but in complex ways with no clear trends.  No significant changes in river flows are projected before 2050. Under different climate change scenarios average flows either increase slightly or decrease slightly. Glacial melt is expected to increase, but be offset by snowmelt reductions. A 20-28 percent reduction in ice volume is projected, mostly at lower elevations. The Indus has a greater share of glacial ice at higher elevation than other Himalayan basins, and although faster rates of warming are expected higher up, the absolute temperatures projected would not be enough to drive rapid melting there.

Fourth, irrigation is commonly believed to be highly inefficient in the Indus leading to a common belief that much water could be “saved” by capturing “losses”. At the basin-scale irrigation is estimated to be more than 80 percent efficient, with only a relatively small proportion of irrigation water lost through evaporation and non-productive plant use. The big “losses” are drainage returns to the river and seepage to groundwater, both of which are then used through diversion downstream or through groundwater pumping. Indeed, it is canal seepage and percolation to groundwater that supports the high and increasing levels of groundwater use in the basin. The problems in irrigation are more to do with inefficient and unfair distribution of the water, and low productivity in terms of the yield and value of crops a unit of water used.

Fifth, the flows to the sea are commonly seen as wastage. Average flow to the sea has been falling for more than 80 years. Firstly, the eastern rivers were diverted to India and then storages were constructed in Pakistan. Average annual flow to the sea has been reduced by more than 80 percent. There is strong evidence that declining flows (as well as pollution, reduction in sediment loads and fragmentation of the river by multiple barrages) is contributing to the declining health of the lower river and delta and underminging the valuable services these ecosystems provide including fisheries and coasal protection. The economic value of these ecosystem services has not been properly assessed.

The Indus basin is most likely over-developed from an environmental sustainability perspective in terms of volumes of water diverted for use. There needs to be more focus on better irrigation service delivery and better on-farm water management, coupled with improvements to boost productivity. With a rapidly growing population, Pakistan will inevitably become more water scarce in a relative sense. But Pakistan can become water secure through efficient and sustainable resource management, improved service delivery, and better risk mitigation.


Submitted by Ed Bourque on

Drinking water is very different from IWRM-level water conceptually.

Measuring drinking water access using basin level per-capita 'back of the envelope' calculations is almost useless. Drinking water access is measured reasonably (although, admittedly, not perfectly) well through MDG figures. Besides, I am willing to bet that agriculture uses maybe 90-95% of water in the country, so if scarcity was an issue for drinking water- at least in the big cities, any bulk water issues/needs for utilities could be addressed through a shift in sectoral use.

By and large, access to drinking water is not largely driven by scarcity resource constraints.
Cairncross wrote a great paper about this and other myths of scarcity way back in 2003.
I would argue that drinking water access is largely driven by utility (or, in the case of rural areas, water point) service delivery levels and household economic wherewithal to pay for the service.

Your points on the IWRM level issues are well-taken, however.
I would imagine that improved/more efficient allocations across sectors could address things.
...No water trading going on in Pakistan?? Or, does it all boil down to "Well, the ministers just decide this..."?

Lastly, I agree that the value of water within ecosystems is an often voiceless constituency. Unless someone values the presence of water for ecosystem services, that can certainly be neglected.

Submitted by Bill Young on

Hi Ed – thanks for your comments. I agree that scarcity is not the main concern overall for drinking water supply. The main challenges in this case are ones of governance at multiple levels within a complex political economy. In some cases at local sale of course, a lack of infrastructure can mean local scarcity impacts on drinking water supply. In some cases, a lack of distribution infrastructure means drinking water is mostly from groundwater, and groundwater depletion is a growing concern as use greatly exceesd replenishment. The per capita numbers quoted are thus not relevant for drinking water supply; after all, who needs or wants to drink more than 1 million liters per year?! Around 93% of water use is for irrigation, and hence the scarcity issues mainly relate to food security and economic production (especially food and fiber exports) and to a lesser extend energy security.

Water trading is a distant dream in Pakistan, where basis pricing remains a challenge. Prerequisites would include legally secure water property rights (ideally separated from land property rights); reliable and accessible measurements of water availability, distributions and use; and trusted, empowered and capable institutions for water allocation and regulatory oversight of water markets. All of these are a long way off for Pakistan.

I am encouraging my WSS colleagues to write a complementary blog on Pakistan WSS myths!


Submitted by Rubina on

well captured Bill.
It is all about good governance.

Submitted by Deepali Tewari on

Very well written and hugely informative - such a pleasure to read. Many thanks.

Submitted by Sameer Azhar on

The points: out of proportion concerns over Water Scarcity and glacier melts, on farm management, irrigation conveyance losses, low productivity/ yeild and Insus Delta well taken.However, I beg to differ on need for new reserviors because Indus river system have very little flows after moonsoon and Tarbela Dam Reservior is depleting storage at very fast rate.
Factually, the real culperit is the Indus Basin Treaty (IBT) whereby waters of eastern rivers were given to India forever and hastly built replacement works without sediment flushing mechanism, unlined canals etc. were put in place.
Reserviors like Diamer Basha Dam (DBD) are direly needed as it has minimal social & environmental issues and shall greatly reduce the sediment deposition rate of Tarbela.
In the absence of reconsidering the terms of IBT; developing DBD, moderninzation of Barrages, lining of canals/water courses, on farm management etc. is the way forward.

Submitted by Bill Young on

The “storage myth” is the one which gets the most reaction for sure! The myths here are partly related to inappropriate comparisons that are frequently – for example of basis of “days of storage” or storage volume person”, while not accounting for differences in flow variability and differences in flow timing compared to the water demand. Some storage is indeed needed to capture monsoon flows for release later in the year. On average, the biggest shortfall is in October, then November, with smaller shortfalls in December, February and March. The current level of storage does a fairly good job of delivering constant irrigation flows each year by capturing monsoon flows for releases in these shortfall months – there is some variation between years, but not a lot. Yes, sedimentation continues to reduce total effective storage. Building additional storage help keeps up with this loss of storage volume. But it is very expensive option, and the economics are is dubious when based only on the current low level of irrigation productivity. Pakistan has a huge groundwater storage capacity that could be used more effectively to help manage flow variability. Many advocates of additional storage see this a means to yield more water for consumptive use. There is scope to increase water yield through additional storage, but as pointed out total diversions are likely to already be unsustainably high and so this is unlikely to be a wise strategy. Building a new major dam every few decades as a strategy to just manage sedimentation, seems an expensive way of running hard to stand still.

Submitted by Haroon on

Though it is true that governance issue is very important yet this needs to be further unpacked as to which aspect of governance is actually most relevant here. Whether it is lack of political will and decision making, misuse of allocated budgets, myopic priority setting, bureaucratic inertia or altogether lack of professionalism and capacity. Diagnostics galore, the real need is to get to the bottom of this umbrella "governance".

Submitted by adeel on

great article. should be taught, placed and followed in policy circles.

Submitted by Nadir Abbas on

An excellent piece. I believe on farm water management can be streamlined through private sector with very small public sector investment. A serious issue is a lack of dialogue that includes policy and law makers and politicians. You are absolutely right that immediate focus should be on improving use efficiency and rationalizing allocation. I believe that it is time to initial a discussion of water rights as well. Keep up the good work.

Submitted by Ahsan Mansoor on

I also believed in almost all of these myths. Thanks for writing this. Would like to read more in future.

Submitted by Muhammad Nawaz on

Hi William, the article is very interesting and thought provoking. I would add one more piece to the dam puzzle. Dam does not necessarily means large dams; medium and small dams too can do the miracle. Regarding water pricing, a series of small dams (reservoirs, lakes, ditches) in the canal command area would be required to regulate flows - an incentive for water markets. The currently supply-based irrigation system encourages "use it or loose it (to the downstream)". Once the water is released from the Tarbela or Mangla dams or barrages, Management remains with no control to regulate flows towards willing buyers.

Submitted by Bill Young on

Storage and Governance

Thanks Nawaz Sb. You are very correct that all forms of storage should be considered in system scale assessments, not just large dams. In this light both glaciers and groundwater are important natural storage, and groundwater in particular should be managed more actively for its storage value. Small storages throughout the distribution network would indeed enable highly valuable re-regulation of flows. Enhanced control is indeed fundamental to be matching of field-scale water supply to water demand, and to enabling any sort of water trading system. However, while infrastructure and technology improvements would be required to support water trade or transfers, it is most likely to be political and governance issues that prove to be the most complex barriers to overcome.

Submitted by Saeed Shafqat on

Mr. Young thanks, excellent, informative ,perceptive and promising analysis. I completely agree the real issue is efficient and effective management of the resources and water of course is getting scarce but you have given right sense of direction and blown up the myths its scarcity,hope experts and policy makers follow the lead...

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