Running Dry: Pakistan's Looming Water Scarcity Crisis and Solutions

From water-stressed to water-scarce, the water crisis journey of Pakistan is often linked to the supply and demand gap. Although, the issue is more complex than it is being presented. Despite the low reserves, water utilization remains unchecked in Pakistan. Around 27.2 million people in Pakistan are deprived of safe drinking water. Consequently, 39000 children (under age five) die annually due to diarrhea. Moreover, this unconstrained increase in population will further lower the standard of living with the current management system. According to a study, water availability is less than the required amount, and this gap will increase with rising  demand.

Available Water: 125.56 MAF

Water Required: 164.48 MAF

Shortage: 38.92 MAF (31%)

Water consumption pattern in Pakistan

The major water-consuming sub-sectors in Pakistan are industry, environment, domestic, and agricultural. Although domestic consumption is prioritized, the largest water-consuming sector is agriculture which consumes 91.6% of the country's total annual consumption. The environment follows this trend at 3.3%, domestic usage at 2.6%, and industry at 2.5%. Therefore, over-exploitation by the agricultural sector can significantly impact water resources.

Water consumption by different sub-sectors. Chart Source: Annual report UNDP

Factors responsible for groundwater stress

Nevertheless, institutions exist to govern water resources at the local, provincial, and federal levels, but effective coordination among these institutions continues to be a cause of concern. Groundwater extraction, which commenced in the early 1960s, was primarily for waterlogged soil reclamation and for augmenting canal supplies. Canal water has remained the highest priority for most water management policies, while groundwater has been neglected legislatively till now. However, the sensitivity of this matter demands crucial attention from both the private and government sectors.

Several indirect management strategies for groundwater have been brought forward in the last couple of decades, but they still need to improve their effectiveness and compatibility with the system. Like others, the environmental, domestic, and industrial sectors depend on groundwater to fulfill their water requirements. The irrigational practice shift (from canal water to groundwater) in agriculture is increasing the load on groundwater. A continuous decline in the utilization of canal water and an increasing loop in the area irrigated by tube wells has been observed in the last two decades.

Irrigation Practices in Pakistan. Graph Source:

Tube wells: an unreported water consumer

Groundwater users' framework is complex in Pakistan. They are divided into three groups based on the ownership of the tube well: water buyers, tube well shareholders, and tube well owners. A tube well is installed on land with a freshwater aquifer below it to extract unchecked water. The small farmers who cannot afford to install a separate tube well buy groundwater from the tube well owners or become shareholders by dividing the installation and operational costs. The high cost includes the installation cost, while the operational costs (fuel/electricity charges or tube-well service) are affordable. In the recent two decades, the number of installed tube wells has increased notably. Most of the exploitation, more than 80%, is observed in private tube wells that have a small capacity. These users are primarily unregistered, and negotiation with farmers is complex due to differences in their financial status.

The number of public and private tube wells in Pakistan. Graph source:

Annual energy consumption by tube wells

There are about 84,000 electric and 545,000 diesel tube wells in Pakistan. Fuel consumption (slow-speed diesel engine and Chinese pump) is 1.5–2.5 liters per hour, and the tractor-operated tube wells consume 3.5–5.0 liters per hour. However, electric tube wells (10 horsepower motors) consume about eight units per hour. Overall, the utilization factor for electric tube wells is 1% and 8% for diesel-operated tube wells. About 950 million liters of diesel (costing 16 billion rupees) are consumed annually by tube wells in Pakistan.

Moreover, electric tube wells consume about 1.02 billion KWH annually (cost 2.6 billion rupees). The overall operational cost of these private tube wells is 18.6 billion per annum. This diesel consumption enhances pressure on imported petroleum products, which is already at the top of the list among imported products.

Major Imports of Pakistan. Graph source:

Industrial share in water scarcity

Similarly, there needs to be a proper monitoring system to check the amount of groundwater being utilized in industrial processes. However, the suo motu actions taken by the apex court against the cement factories and bottled water companies for drilling out unchecked amounts of fresh groundwater have increased awareness among the public for water conservation. Furthermore, this step towards accountability has also made these industries concerned about groundwater use since they are charged for it now. This will not only change the consumption pattern of companies but also a significant reduction in wastewater generated.

Virtual water trade

The virtual water trade (export of water-intensive crops to another country) will also pressure on Pakistan’s ground and surface water (blue water). According to a case study, blue water losses will increase from 9207 Mm3 (2016) to 28999 Mm3 (2030 prediction). Even so, this issue has just been raised in Pakistan. However, predictions depict that this earning source will cost a lot to Pakistan because most of the imported products are in raw form while international companies do value addition. Consequently, a significant share of profits is earned by these international companies rather than by the locals of the country.

Approaches to reduce consumption pressure on groundwater.

● A committee or a program management cell that will strengthen monitoring and evaluation for delivering and setting the WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) agenda.

● Rationalizing the per capita water supply limit, reducing leakages during supply, periodic testing systems for water quality at the source, and distributing the network will help improve water quality at the consumer end.

● An environment where all the stakeholders, including private sectors, government departments, research institutes, farmers, and NGOs, can work together to bring out a common panacea for all the interlinked problems to protect the fundamental rights of citizens.

● There should be an equitable mandate of subsidies, charges, and taxes by which an efficient resource utilization framework can be resumed. Among all, the most diplomatic issue that needs to be addressed is Abiana recovery (water charges collected from the farmers according to the crop type) which, at the current level, do not reflect the actual cost of water consumed by different crops.

● At the national level, a flexible, feasible, and effective policy should be made or revised. Along with this, its implementation should be ensured at the local, provincial, and international levels by considering the financial status of the farmers.

● In February 2020, the chief minister of Punjab approved the project of installation of advanced meters in the provincial capital to ensure efficient distribution and management of water resources. If such a metering system is applied throughout the country, it would accurately reflect which sectors are responsible for intensive water consumption. Then the tariff(s) can be designed accordingly.

About the Author: Hira Saif is a research student at NUST, Pakistan. Her research domain is atmospheric sciences. She highlights events associated with climate change and is passionate about bringing sustainable change to Pakistan.


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