When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water

–Benjamin Franklin

Water is a curious thing”, said, the economist Adam Smith, in his book titled the Wealth of Nations. “Although it is vital to life, it costs almost nothing, whereas diamonds, which are useless for survival, cost a fortune”. In the backdrop of tragedy of commons, and as rightly pointed out also by the Canadian environmental journalist, Marc de Villiers, water is still undervalued though it is fast becoming precious. The water-diamond paradox of values notwithstanding, the world at large appears, however, to be running out of water. And people in almost all countries of the world with fast growing economies are beset with a severe water crisis. Accordingly, food security is surging as a big dilemma owing to water constraint which is due largely to mismanagement of this resource by people across the world -be it China, US, Europe, countries of the east European block, Africa, Central Asia, Indus or the Nile delta. Though not solely mentioned among the countries known for bad management, Pakistan is by far the most prominent country where water is being grossly mismanaged or has not for many reasons been managed at all.

While Eugene Stakhiv of the US corps of engineers- founded and assigned by the late president Thomas Jefferson to manage rain and flood water for drinking and crop production thinks most studies (on water) conducted by academicians are irrelevant to practical decision making, it underscores the importance of political will and public support to deal with the issue. In the US, the national universities have, of late, been placing water on the academic agenda, and in 2011, the university of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, devoted the entire year to the study and discussions on water issues and assigned the task to university’s various divisions and departments including the world renowned Wharton school of business. The Michigan University followed by creating a “water semester” in the spring of the same year. However, the cleaning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, USA (which caught fire in 1969 being full of garbage), is a significant success story of the public –private partenership in dealing with a water crisis. The water management partenership between the city council of Wagga Wagga (designated as the Global Water Smart City) and Charles Sturt University in Australia - could be quoted as another example of an action plan aimed at establishing a model for tackling the real issues in an academic setting. With 36000 students enrolled the university focuses on effluent reuse and salinity management, water festivals, international seminars, exhibits and diverse educational activities worth emulating by the academic institutions in this country as well.

As per Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a Nobel-winning group of scientists, and Global Climate Risk Assessment Index, developed by Germanwatch, Pakistan is now among the world’s most climate vulnerable countries which calls for immediate preventive measures. Losses to economy- to agriculture, transport, energy, environment, forestry and to water supply and sewerage sector in 2010-2011 alone caused losses amounting to Rs 324.5 billion to national economy’- a loss that much exceeded the loss caused by tsunami in 2004.While the need for large dams for storage of water in Pakistan, like Kala Bagh Dam has long been overdue, the country faced a severe shortage of water besides recurrent floods and inundation in recent years. The technical study conducted by a committee of experts besides the feasibility report, that took many decades and huge outlay of public money, and the Council of Common interests had already recommended its construction only which could guarantee the availability of water in those areas where the level of water is dangerously falling. The necessity of small dams for the storage of flood and rain water to stem the perils of drought has also been emphasized by water experts in the country.

The total water resulting from the annual rainfall in Pakistan is 125 to 750 mm ( 50 – 90 MAF) which is equivalent to an average of 50 MAF ( source PMD) compared with the 7.9 MAF and 4.67 MAF of Tarbella and Mangla dams respectively ( c.f. Dr. Khalid Mahmood, NIAB, Faisalabad). India is presently constructing about 35 hydropower projects on river Chenab and many on Jhelum and Sindh which will reduce the surface water flows in the country additionally by around 33-35 million acre feet annually.

On the other hand, an unsustainable practice of ground water pumping in the region including Pakistan poses a severe threat to water for drinking and food production, as water tables in the region are falling precipitously- i.e. at the rate of ca. 20 centimeter per annum while at a run off level below 1700 cubic meter per person self sufficiency in food production is highly jeopardized. In Pakistan with a population of 180 million today, the water availability per person has already fallen from about 5000 cubic meter person to 1000 cubic meter per person since 1947, when the population of the country was only ca. 32 million people.

Presently, about two billion people rely on the earth’s aquifers as their sole source of fresh water (UNESCO, 2009). The demand for water is pressing communities in certain parts of the world into mining the deep aquifers -the deep layers of water that took millions of years to develop (Brahma Chellany). Saudi Arabia which has already lost more than half of its aquifers due to irrigation is now desalinating sea water for drinking. No doubt, people in the deserts know the worth of water well. The bid to explore deep aquifers of Sahara for water by the late Col. Qaddafi in Libya is a good case in point.

Drinking water is recognized by the WHO as the basic right of human beings. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon stated recently that 700 million people in 43 countries in the world suffered from water scarcity and the number may rise to 3 billion by 2025. However, according to Ministerial Conference on water security in the twentieth century held at the Hague in 2000, the world is facing a severe water crisis, and that is the crisis of managing water so badly that billions of people and the environment suffer alike.

 The writer is ex-director NIAB, Faisalabad, former HEC professor, UAF, ex-professor of Environmental Sciences, GCUF, and former member of the New York Academy of Sciences, USA.