Pakistan’s water crisis has become increasingly visible in recent months: levels in the largest dams are low; parched irrigation canals mean farmers in the south planted less cotton; and the commercial capital Karachi has long queues at hydrants.

So there was little surprise when, on June 6, during a spell of unseasonably high temperatures, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) issued a drought alert.

Yet that is unusual for this time of year when winter snows in the mountainous north typically melt and fill the rivers. The lack of run-off is part of the problem, said PMD director-general Ghulam Rasul, but the main issue is a lack of rain.

Last year’s monsoon was about a quarter below the norm, while the winter rains - from December to March - were about half the average, he said.

“Drought-like conditions have emerged over most parts of Pakistan,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Much of the water used in Pakistan comes from its two largest dams - the Tarbela and the Mangla. Both are managed by the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), a government water management agency.

In March, IRSA said the dams had, for the first time in 15 years, reached the “dead level”: the point at which their water cannot be drained by gravity, and can only be pumped out.

High temperatures in the north in recent days have since caused some run-off from snow and glacier melt, and the level in the Tarbela dam is starting to rise, said Rasul.

But experts say that will not solve the problem long-term.

Worsening situation

The Indus River is Pakistan’s lifeline and, along with its tributaries, makes up the Indus River System, which has provided water for people for untold centuries.

And it is people - more specifically, burgeoning demand for water from Pakistan’s fast-growing population - that add to drought pressures, said Rasul.

Pakistan’s population is growing at 2.4 per cent annually. Last year it reached 208 million, up from just over 130 million in 1998.

Linked to that, per capita water availability has been on a downward trend for decades. In 1947, when Pakistan was created, the figure stood at about 5,000 cubic metres per person, according to the World Bank. Today it is 1,000 cubic metres.

It will decline further with the population expected to double in the next 50 years, said Tariq Banuri, the former head of the Global Change Impact Studies Centre (GCISC), the country’s premier think-tank on climate change.

“We will go down to 500 cubic metres per person per year.”

The impact of climate change will cut that another 20 percent, he said, to 400 cubic metres.

All of which explains years of concern about water use, and why the outgoing government was applauded in April for approving the country’s first National Water Policy.

For now, though, the policy is on hold, with a caretaker government running Pakistan ahead of the July 25 election.

The policy, which was delayed more than a decade, covers an array of water-related issues: from the impact of climate change to hydropower, from transboundary water-sharing to irrigated and rain-fed agriculture, and from drinking water to sanitation.

It is a lengthy document - too lengthy, said Pervaiz Amir, who heads the Pakistan Water Partnership, a local non-profit that works on water issues.

Amir said its 41 pages have 33 objectives, and that makes it hard to convert it into an action plan. By comparison, he said, India’s policy document is just five pages long.

“We don’t know what are the key priorities – what are the three or four things we need to do urgently? Will it need high-level support?” he asked at a recent meeting organised by the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC) in Islamabad.

The policy envisions a water council headed by the prime minister, and with other members comprising federal ministers and provincial chief ministers.

But in practice such high-level councils rarely meet. For example, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Council, which was set up in 1984, has met just a handful of times, Amir said.

Given that most of the Indus water is used in agriculture, he said, the policy should focus on that.

“It is in the agricultural sector where we need to get it right,” he said.

‘More crop per drop’

Pakistan must improve how efficiently water is used in all sectors, the GCISC’s Banuri told the CSCCC meeting.

“Efficiency should be a target, and Pakistan should ensure more crop per drop,” he said.

Poor water use is a key part of the problem, agreed Hammad Naqi Khan, who heads WWF-Pakistan, an environmental non-profit.

“The way we use water is so inefficient – we use more water per crop than most other places,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The country should also focus on drought-resistant crops and better farming practices, Khan said, and it should plant pulses and vegetables in water-stressed areas rather than water-hungry sugarcane and rice.

He also wants to see measures like rainwater harvesting, provision of potable water, recycling, wastewater treatment and re-use technologies.

Banuri commended the government for introducing the policy, but said it needed to clarify what it was meant to solve, not least because it lacks concrete targets.

One solution is to tie it to the UN-backed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which Pakistan ratified and incorporated into its key development document Vision 2025.

“Goal 6 on water is a clear and concise framework,” he said.

The SDGs already have targets for a wide range of water issues, including its management and use, pollution, efficiency and conservation, and it would make sense to match to those, he said. It would also make it easier to track progress.

That will be something for the next government to consider. In the meantime, cotton farmers in South Punjab and Sindh provinces have told the PMD’s Rasul that low water levels in irrigation canals mean their crops are in danger.

“Sowing is affected because they needed more water than they got this season; there will be less area under the cultivation of cotton this year,” he said.

And although the monsoon's arrival in late June should see the situation improve in northern Pakistan, Rasul said, lower than average expected rainfall means farmers in the south can expect little respite.