Pakistan and the Global Water War

September 13, 2016 OPINION/NEWS

APP photo



Zeeshan A. Shah

Over 7 billion people today need food and water to live and survive. Another 2 billion will be added to that number by 2050. Estimates say that human beings can survive a month without food, but not more than 15 days without water.

As the history of human conflict goes, a dispute over a scarce resource is bound to lead to military confrontations at some point in time. To put things in perspective, consider that over 70% of planet Earth is covered by water, less than half of which is fit for human consumption. And now, what if the ocean levels rise and that 70% of the ocean floor ends up dominating the remaining 30% of the land mass that secures the human population on this planet. Deadly consequences leading to the most horrifying reality known to human kind – the possible end of our way of life.

According to the Vice Chancellor at the University of Agriculture and Irrigation of Faisalabad, Pakistan was on the verge of water scarcity and should take extra measures to fight the challenge by creating awareness. In 2050, he said, the water situation would be alarming with per capita water availability at 550 cubic meters. Pakistan has been placed in the red zone due to low per capita water availability at 1,000 cubic meters. In Pakistan, the depletion of water resources is reaching critical levels. In 2010, most of our water facilities were destroyed in the floods, followed by more devastation in 2011. Since then, our provinces have suffered significant setbacks, pushing a vast chunk of our population to worrisome levels of poverty. In Sindh alone, over 35 million people grapple with water and food insecurity, as the floods wiped out the entire water and sanitation infrastructure and housing facilities in the affected areas of the province.

In a letter addressed to the Government of Pakistan, the former chairman of the Indus River System Authority stated that “Pakistan is dangerously exposed to devastating floods and crippling load shedding at any time in the future, for no new dams have been built for the last 47 years. The existing reservoirs have silted by 6.5 MAF due to salting. There is a lack of water management and the planners of storage dams have ignored their capacity inflow ratio. Saline lands have been put under ill-conceived salinity control and reclamation projects and national drainage programs, which have later failed and subsequently abandoned. The irrigation system lacks proper drainage, and there is no way to evacuate injurious salts.”

Pakistan needs to invest in over 22-25 million acre feet (MAF) of water storage, against the 38 MAF of storage capacity already acquired by India. India has silently built over 200 dams, 32 of which are large enough to functionally cease the inflow of up to 38 MAF of water to Pakistan at will. This can practically destroy our crops during the Rabi season. Foreign media reports have also indicated that India has raised the stakes even higher for Pakistan: it plans to construct 12 new dams across the Kabul River – pushing the two countries ever closer to a water-war.

For starters, we need to revamp our 165-year-old canal irrigation system through integrated water management. The aim should be to save the 50 MAF of water being wasted annually. We must also ensure that we build surface and sub-surface tile drainage to control salinity and remove dangerous salts out of the water. A recent study by the World Bank has pointed to the Skardu valley as the source of silt in our river systems: if a dam is built there, we can not only deal with this menace, but can also store up to 35 MAF of water. This can additionally fetch us over 10,000 megawatts of hydropower. Pakistan is not alone on this crisis.

Our Earth is Green and then it is Blue. Blue planet, the third largest Planet is covered by Water but Human Populations are fast being deprived of Fresh Drinking Water as the water crisis deepens. More than a Billion Trillion Litres of water is in fact – unfit for consumption for your food, kitchen, crops or children. Only a tiny fraction of that water is still worth drinking. If a bottle represented the world’s water, leaving the salty water and water locked on ice, only a drop of water in the bottle will be left, worth drinking. In just 15 years, roughly half the planet’s population will be living in areas of high water stress. In other words for them, there won’t be enough water to go around. To quench the thirst and grow the food for the planet’s Seven Billion strong population, there is a severe depletion of water to serve the entire planet in the face of unprecedented demand, due to Pollution and Contamination. One is surrounded by too much Sea Water. Ideally we should convert that into fresh drinking water but a simple thing is a big challenge for any Developed or Emerging Nation today. Can we resolve the water crisis before we run out of water solutions completely?


Photo – Abid Mehdi


An average person uses over 4,000 litres of water every day. Hard to imagine if one thinks about just drinking water, taking a shower or flushing the toilet. Water also helps to grow your food, to cook it and to wash your clothes for billions every day. We need Four Trillion litres of water per year globally today and natural water resources are not enough anymore. God did not make us intelligent so that we create death by water. Water gives life and today we ignore it as the single most basic threat to our survival.

The World’s population will reach around 10 billion by 2050. We are way off our benchmarks on development goals and people are not exactly bothered on their impacts. We cannot quarantine the entire ocean. But we can make some good water. As World leaders gathered at the UN on Climate Change, lots of new solutions were identified but not implemented. Awareness is where people are, cities not countries can solve problems in future, where we micro mange projects and provinces are given autonomy. Half of the world’s 7.2 billion people now live in one city or another, a number expected to swell to more than 6 billion people living in cities by 2050, mostly in Africa and Asia.

If Nations are not delivering, people can. Desalination – turning sea water into fresh water – seems to be the best solution to the water crisis. In nature, a process called osmosis makes water move through a semi-permeable membrane from areas of low salt concentration to areas of high concentration. But for desalination to work, it needs to move the other way. Lots of pressure is needed to force the water through the membrane – and that’s energy intensive and expensive. If desalination is going to be a realistic source of fresh water, we either need lots of cheap energy, or a way to make the process more efficient.

Rising Sea Levels is a clear and present danger to our populations. We see the icebergs melting in and around the Arctic and Antarctic regions at a much faster pace than anticipated. This may actually mean the ice cold mountains that surround most of Asia and Pakistan are also going to see the ice melt away leading to the already bulging water crisis, as lots of water will emerge into floods and massive destruction to the land mass if we do not conserve water and find solutions to secure water rather than let it flow.

In Pakistan, we need water reservoirs not water floods. The other consequences of severe water shortages are also with us and the UN, among other bodies, has made rather frightening predictions that Pakistan will, within a few years be a country desperately short of water, with fewer and fewer unpolluted resources left to meet the drinking water needs of people. The experts also jointly proposed setting up an independent Indus Water Commission under the direct control of the United Nations, comprising neutral experts from various international agencies including the Work Bank, the United Nations Environment Program and the European Union. Independent experts have urged Pakistan and India to declare all Himalayan glaciers as ‘Protected Areas,’ and consequently demilitarize Siachen to preserve the second-longest glacier in the world for exclusively feeding into the Indus water basin.

The Next war will be over water – if we do not wake up to the shocking reality that Global Warming will only lead to water scarcity and sea waters will rise leaving us deprived of drinking water while floods and melting ice layers will generate higher risk of destruction if our water reservoirs are not functional. The reality of the destruction has been witnessed by the natural disasters that have plagued us in the past where no single powerful country has been able to protect itself from Nature’s destructive forces- Rising Water Tides and Rising Ocean levels. There will be more flooding in years to come, more earthquakes and more Tsunamis. We need to secure ourselves before we sink the Earth and our human populations. We have to win the deadliest battle for survival – the Global Water War.









Zeeshan A. Shah

The writer is a Director at CNNA Pakistan – a leading advocacy institute and is an expert on International Relations and Education Policy.

With over 150 publications in major local and global social media & newspapers, he has been instrumental in producing over 5000 radio broadcasts aired globally.

A thought leader, environmental journalist, media broadcaster and a change maker with an acute focus on development affairs & education for Pakistan.


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