Starved for Energy, Pakistan Braces
for a Water Crisis
By: Salman Masood
Pakistanis, their economy battered by chronic fuel and
electricity shortages, may soon have to contend with a new
resource crisis: major water shortages, the Pakistani
government warned this week.
A combination of global
climate change and local waste and mismanagement have led to
an alarmingly rapid depletion of Pakistan’s water supply,
said the minister for water and energy, Khawaja Muhammad
“Under the present
situation, in the next six to seven years, Pakistan can be a
water-starved country,” Mr. Asif said in an interview,
echoing a warning that he first issued at a news conference
in Lahore this week.
The prospect of a major water
crisis in Pakistan, even if several years distant, offers a
stark reminder of a growing challenge in other poor and
densely populated countries that are vulnerable to global
In Pakistan, it poses a further challenge to Prime Minister
Nawaz Sharif, whose government has come under sharp
criticism for failing to end the country’s electricity
In some rural areas, heavy
rationing has meant that as little as four hours of
electricity a day is available.
In the interview, Mr. Asif said the government had started
to bring the electricity crisis under control, and predicted
a return to a normal supply by 2017.
But energy experts are less
confident that such a turnaround is possible, given how long
and complex the problem has proved to be.
Now the country’s water supply looms as a resource
challenge, intensified by Pakistan’s enduring infrastructure
and management problems.
Agriculture is a cornerstone of the Pakistani economy.
The 2,000-mile-long Indus
River, which rises in the Himalayas and spans the country,
feeds a vast network of irrigation canals that line fields
producing wheat, vegetables and cotton, all major sources of
In the north, hydroelectric
power stations are a cornerstone of the creaking power
A combination of melting glaciers, decreasing rainfall and
chronic mismanagement by successive governments has put that
water supply in danger, experts say.
In a report published in
2013, the Asian Development Bank described Pakistan as one
of the most “water-stressed” countries in the world, with a
water availability of 1,000 cubic meters per person per year
— a fivefold drop since independence in 1947, and about the
same level as drought-stricken Ethiopia.
“It is a very serious situation,” said Pervaiz Amir, country
director for the Pakistan Water Partnership. “I feel it is
going to be more serious than the recent oil shortages.”
Shortages of resources have climbed to the top of the
political agenda in recent years.
Fuel shortages last month,
for which government officials blamed mismanagement by the
national oil company, caused lengthy lines outside fuel
stations that embarrassed the government at a time of low
global oil prices.
Mr. Sharif’s government was already grappling with the
seemingly intractable electricity crisis, which regularly
causes blackouts of 10 hours a day even in major cities.
And Mr. Sharif has been
visibly distracted by grueling political duels, with the
opposition politician Imran Khan, who accuses him of
stealing the 2013 election, and with powerful military
leaders who have undermined his authority in key areas.
Mr. Asif, the water and
energy minister, said the government had started to turn the
corner. But he acknowledged that the country’s resource
problems were, to a large degree, endemic.
“There is a national habit of
extravagance,” he said, noting that it extended across
resource areas, whether gas, electricity or water.
“I will be very careful not to use the word ‘drought,’ but
we are water stressed right now, and slowly, we are moving
to be a water-starved country,” he said.
Evidence of chronic water shortages have been painfully
evident in some parts of Pakistan in recent years.
A drought caused by erratic
rainfall in Tharparkar, a desert area in southern Sindh
Province, caused a humanitarian emergency in the region last
“The frequency of monsoon
rains has decreased but their intensity has increased,” said
Mr. Amir of the Pakistan Water Partnership. “That means more
water stress, particularly in winters.”
Water is also tied to nationalist, even jihadist, politics
in Pakistan. For years, religious conservatives and Islamist
militants have accused rival India, where the Indus River
system rises, of constricting Pakistan’s water supply.
Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the militant group that carried
out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, Lashkar-e-Taiba,
regularly rails against Indian “water terrorism” during
Mr. Asif said that contrary to such claims, India was not
building reservoirs on rivers that flow into Pakistan.
“We will never let it
happen,” he said, citing the Indus Water Treaty, an
agreement between the two countries that was brokered by the
World Bank and signed in the 1960s.
One major culprit in Pakistan’s looming water crisis,
experts say, is the country’s inadequate water storage
facilities. In India, about one-third of the water supply is
stored in reservoirs, compared with just 9 percent in
Pakistan, Mr. Amir said.
“We built our last dam 46 years ago,” he said. “India has
built 4,000 dams, with another 150 in the pipeline.”
Experts say the country’s chaotic policies are hurting its
image in the eyes of Western donors who could help alleviate
the mounting resource crises.
“The biggest looming crisis is of governance, not water —
which could make this country unlivable in the next few
years,” said Arshad H. Abbasi, a water and energy expert
with the Sustainable Development and Policy Institute, a
research group based in Islamabad.