Water is a key strategic resource, and even more so, it is a right that should be freely accessible to the populace today and to succeeding generations. The water resources of Pakistan predominantly consist of groundwater and surface water. Groundwater is a very fundamental, natural resource, found trapped under the surface and extracted through open wells and tube wells, whereas surface water reservoirs consist of rivers, creeks, lakes, streams, ponds, dams etc. Rainwater, as a surface water resource, falls less than 500 mm annually in a semi-arid country like Pakistan, as compared to other countries in the South Asian cohort exceeding 1000mm of rainfall.

Since the incursion of seawater has salinized Karachi’s groundwater, the biggest metropolis of Pakistan, its population is totally dependent on surface water, while Lahore, the second biggest city, mainly uses groundwater. Lahore’s population is served with 1.29 MAF (million acre feet) of groundwater, extracted through tube wells, hand pumps and motor pumps. As per the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, since anyone can install a tube well of any capacity or depth and extract any amount of water, there are over a million tube wellsin Punjab nowas compared to 0.3 million in the early nineties.

The foreseeable shortage of water Pakistan is going to face in the next couple of years due to unrelenting mismanaged water resources, has given rise to an earnest need to preserve it and provide solutions to combat its scarcity. A World Bank Report has revealed the annual per capita water availability to be less than 3,000 cubic meters in Pakistan which is far less than neighbouring countries.According to the International Monetary Fund’s report (2015), Pakistan is headed towards a serious water crisis by 2025 owing to population growth,inefficient use of water for irrigation and overexploitation of groundwater.

Amid official projections elucidating Pakistan’s population at 207 million, with an annual growth rate of 2%, it is difficult to confront this crisis without proper education to control the birth rate. However, with population proliferation, competition between relevant factors like environment, household, industry and agriculture is also growing resulting in more water consumption for the gorwing population.

As pera recent report from World Bank, shocking revelations were made with regards to consumption of water by Pakistan’s agriculture sector. Pakistan’s key agricultural crops including wheat, rice, sugarcane and cotton contribute less than five percent to the National GDP while consuming more than 80 percent of the Country’s water. On top of this, age old irrigation methods are being used for agriculture that need to be improved by promoting mechanization which will help in lowering water consumption and increasing yield per hectare with modification of cropping patterns through supplemental irrigation. This is achievable through adoption of pressurised irrigation with less than 50 MAF of water consumption.

Commercial tube wells are running dry Pakistan’s ground water, especially in the Punjab region. It is to be noted that this rapid depletion is due mainly to inefficient use of groundwater in agriculture, and only insignificantly so due to industrial use, which is draining the national aquifer faster than it can be replenished. For example, the amount of water abstracted and used by the bottled water and beverages sector is only a very small fraction as compared to the volume used by agriculture. Equitable rules should be drafted for all water users to pay their fair share according to usage instead of a blanket tax on a randomly singled out industry. Currently, a tax of PKR1.00 per litre on the use of ground or surface water has been imposed on the water bottling and beverage companies through aruling of the Supreme Court, whereas it is not clear how this rate was calculated, and whether this will also apply to all other industries using groundwater.

It does not make sense that there is such a big focus on the beverages and bottling sector who are the least consumers of ground water. The government needs to clarify its position on what is the true objective for water conservation/preservation and judicious use, which in my opnion needs to be across the board with the focus on biggest ground water consumers.

The Punjab provincial government has taken notice of the overexploitation of groundwater and drafted the ‘Punjab Groundwater Protection, Regulation and Development Act (2017)’, which is in consultation with various stakeholders. A holistic and aggressive management regime for the judicious conservation of available resources is imperative. Lack of political harmony and preparedness to tackle this issue and reduce wasteful practices is the biggest leadership challenge Pakistan is facing at all levels. Since water conservation is a collective responsibility, an improved governance system is required to combat the water shortages by a controlled supply, reusing water for non-drinking purposes and wastewater management along with behaviour change campaigns to sensitise all water users.

All this may be hard work, but it is work that needs to be undertaken on priority basis and without any further delay. Taxing water may generate revenues in the short term but it will certainly not resolve the fundamental issues of its inefficient use, wastage and burgeoning scarcity.