With fewer than 1,000 cubic meters of water available per person, Pakistan is “one of the most water-stressed countries in the world” according to a new report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
The report covers a range of economic concerns for the country, but its conclusion notes that “boosting agricultural productivity and strengthening food security” will require “improving the management, storage, and pricing of water for irrigation.” 80 percent of Pakistan’s farms are currently irrigated, and the report estimates that the right reforms could double their productivity.
But standing in between Pakistan and that goal is a wealth of challenges. As The Atlantic reports, two-thirds of the country’s population is under 30 and has already grown enormously over the last few decades. By 2030, it’s projected to boom from 180 million residents to 256 million. Climate change is also reducing water flow in the Indus River — Pakistan’s main source of fresh water — resulting in a pincer move that’s rapidly depleting the country’s water supplies. From the ADB’s report:
Water demand exceeds supply, which has caused maximum withdrawal from reservoirs. At present, Pakistan’s storage capacity is limited to a 30-day supply, well below the recommended 1,000 days for countries with a similar climate. Climate change is affecting snowmelt and reducing flows into the Indus River, the main supply source. Increases in storage capacity to manage periods of low snowmelt and low rainfall are required, as well as the rehabilitation of the distribution system to reduce losses.
The Atlantic notes that water shortages are threatening to spark mass demonstrations in Abbottabad — over 5,000 homes in the city went without sufficient water in the hottest months of this year. Political leaders, parties, and organizations within the country are already pointing fingers at one another, and militant Pakistani groups went so far as to accuse neighboring India of “water terrorism.” All of which is a microcosm for why an international poll by Pew found that populations around the world view climate change as their number one threat, and why the U.S. military’s Quadrennial Defense Review called climate change “an accelerant of instability or conflict.”
The pressure is driving Pakistan’s government to protest India’s construction of a series of dam’s on the Indus River. They would lie in India’s territory but sit upstream from Pakistan, thus possibly constricting its water flow. Pakistan is also pushing to renegotiate the terms of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, which governs how India and Pakistan share the flow from the six rivers of the Indus Basin. It’s an international-scale mirror of a brewing slew of legal conflicts between different U.S. states — such as Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico — over water access to shared rivers. The Pakistan-India dispute is currently being reviewed by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
As both the ADB’s report and The Atlantic point out, outside of altering the treaty — an unlikely prospect, given India’s reluctance — Pakistan has a few other options. Pricing and management of water resources is especially dysfunctional in Asia and North Africa, and Pakistan is no exception; its agricultural industry is notorious for inefficient irrigation and drainage practices. The ADB report cites “anecdotal evidence” that “agricultural productivity could be doubled with appropriate reform.” There’s also the Memorandum of Understanding between the Karachi Water and Sewage board and the China International Water and Electric Corporation, which aims to make that Pakistani city’s water supply self-sufficient.