Water levels in Khanpur dam have dropped drastically amidst a dry spell in the country. WAPDA officials have claimed that it is dropping up to 0.10 feet a day, with an outflow of 90 cusecs a day and inflow of 50 cusecs. This news has come to us at a time when Cape Town is approaching ‘Day Zero’ – the day (sometime in mid-April 2018 or perhaps even sooner) all water supplies will be shut off in the city as water in dams have fallen to critically low levels amidst a 3 year long drought. The city is on red alert and panic stricken. 

Water shortages are an extremely real issue in Pakistan as everyone we know has a water problem in their homes. Karachi is an urban city facing the brunt of it and water prices have surged. A single water tanker that comes to homes in Karachi costs up to Rs. 8000-10,000. For a daily wage labour who might make Rs. 800 a day, this is simply not an option. Thus, a life source for all has become virtually inaccessible via capitalistic societies. Tussles over the resource have become a frightening reality; extreme terrorism and an Indo-Pak war are imminent.  

We were told climatic changes will affect us in the next decade, however recent developments have only indicated that these challenges are already upon us. No one would have imagined that we would run out of water as soon as we have. Yet a lack of awareness and sheer stubbornness to change attitudes in Pakistan may be our ultimate downfall.

To this day, people do not cease to wash their cars every morning only for it to get dirty in another few minutes. To see individuals spray water in their driveways to ‘settle the dust’ has been a common, and utterly wasteful, sight in the subcontinent. Not to mention, people open their taps to full capacity and leave the water running even when not in use whilst washing dishes, performing ablution, or even when brushing their teeth. When told not to waste water, the usual response is ‘it will replenish’.

Though they are not wrong in this regard, the natural water cycle is built in a self-resilient way where it replenishes itself. However, as anthropogenic pursuits have continued we fail to realise we have completely altered this system. Even the smallest change in a single feature of the environment can have dire consequences for the whole. We humans forget that nature does not work in parts, but rather as a sum of its parts. Every biological creation is dependent on another part that ultimately forms a great chain. The water, mineral, biological and energy cycles form one whole in nature. 

For a successful water cycle, we need to ensure that most of the water is retained in the soil. Yet, as we replace natural soil with concrete, or cut more and more trees that hold the soil together and keep it from breaking with the impact of rain, we increase surface run off. This is when instead of soaking into the soil, water escapes and runs hard and fast into rivers and dams taking with it the healthiest part of the soil, and a lot of silt that increase chances of floods, and deplete water reserves in dams (as they are full of silt). Not only did we lose all the water, but also the crucial soil we need for healthy vegetation and farming. 1mm of rainfall on 1m2 equals 1 litre of water, depending on the size of the land, one can gauge how much water is wasted – simply imagine the expansive urban sprawl of Lahore.

Transpiration is the process whereby water is drawn from the roots of plants and trees, purified and released through the leaves into the air from where it condenses and returns as rainfall. As water is not retained in the soil and there is lesser vegetation, this process cannot effectively take place increasing chances of drought. Simultaneously, as humans continue to increase greenhouse gas emissions, the little water that did make it to the atmosphere may not make it down due to severe changes in weather patterns thanks to climate change. 

Apart from rivers and lakes, water is also extracted from underground aquifers. These are underground rivers/lakes that act as reservoirs. Pakistan has depleted these reserves as an agricultural economy dependent on tube wells for watering their fields. What was once available at 20 feet underground has now gone so far as 800 feet. 

Yet the little fresh water supply we even have is not consumable – poisoned with industrial and municipal waste.  This will lead to obvious environmental injustice as those rural communities living near these water bodies or industries will not have access to clean drinking water at all. According to UN statistics, nearly 80% of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation. 

Another major factor that people tend to forget is that women and young girls are expected to fetch water seven out of ten households in 45 developing countries. With more and more scarcity in rural villages, these girls may have to search further out which makes them more susceptible to sexual harassment and it also pulls them out of the education system when priorities shift. 

Important small steps we can take in this regard are to not waste water in your homes. Flush only as much as needed, do not leave the tap running, do not use unnecessary amounts of electricity, do not take long showers, avoid washing cars, and overall avoid wasteful acts such as drenching your driveways. 

Most important, we need to create a situation where very little water is evaporated or wasted in surface run off. Increasing vegetation is extremely important, more trees ensures more water. Ensuring our natural tree cover is not removed has never been more imperative. Planting and urging others to plant indigenous trees is crucial. Ensuring greater vegetation ensures soil water retention capacities, as vegetation is crucial to ensure micro-organisms in the soil keep the soil fertile. A more sandy soil as opposed to clayey soil will be more beneficial. When you have a healthy water cycle and healthy vegetative community the effects of floods and droughts are less severe; even where there is erratic rainfall. 

Institutions need to look into rain water harvesting and how to effectively divert water during floods that could then be used for our most water stressed regions such as Thar Pakkar. Organisations such as Pitch Africa, have invented buildings that harvest rainwater – they designed a school where rainwater is harvested so that girls come to the building to fetch water as well as attend their classes. Such innovative sustainable initiatives are the start of a new era. 

For a successful water cycle, we need to ensure that most of the water is retained in the soil. Yet, as we replace natural soil with concrete, or cut more and more trees that hold the soil together and keep it from breaking with the impact of rain, we increase surface run off.