In 2019, the World Bank published its report on water scarcity and water security in Pakistan. These two terms refer to the water available to each person based on the total supply, and the overall access and safety of the available water respectively. The report highlights two main reasons for the increasing severity of this issue: the huge increase in population, and poor management and allocation of water resources. These two issues are interconnected and the latter problem impinges on the former. The report notes that “water scarcity is challenging but does not define a country’s economic destiny.” It points out that there are a number of countries that are more water-scarce than Pakistan but which have higher GDPs per capita. The water scarcity and security problem in Pakistan is best understood as a human rights issue. Water is a fundamental human right according to the United Nations, and while the complexities of fixing Pakistan’s water problem are numerous, the primary cause of the problem is failed governance. 


In 1960, Pakistan negotiated its official treaty for water usage with India in the Indus Waters Treaty. The report notes how the increasing population makes the usage of water more and more limited. Indeed, since 1960 the population of Pakistan has nearly quintupled from roughly 45 million to 217 million in 2019. The report states that “Because of sustained and rapid population growth, relative water availability has shrunk to less than a quarter of what of it was half a century ago.” 


However, as noted above, the increase in population does not imply that Pakistan cannot reduce its water security problems. The report underlines the mismanagement of the water resources, notably “(i) poor water data, information, and analysis; (ii) weak processes for water resources planning and allocation; (iii) environmentally unsustainable levels of water withdrawal; (iv) widespread pollution; and (v) low water productivity in agriculture” as a significant reason for these issues being so dire. The last of these is particularly alarming but also appears to be one way to make a significant difference if rectified. The report points out that only four crops collectively use 80% of the country’s water, yet account for only 5% of its economy. The report notes later on that “the economic productivity of water is very low, especially in agriculture,” while also drawing attention to the poor government systems that lack communication and make efficient use of water difficult. 


The author spoke to Yusma Khan, a Pakistani-American dual citizen residing in the U.S. who has lived in Pakistan much of her life and has family living there currently. She informed that water is and has, for many years, been an issue of human rights in Pakistan. She remembers learning as a child about predictions of Pakistan’s water supply being unreliable by 2025. She also recounted a time when her family’s maid discussed people from her village having issues with their teeth, as the water that ran through their village was tainted by salt. Yusma further noted that even bottled water in a village had the ability to make her feel ill as it was not treated properly. The World Bank reports that illnesses and injuries caused by lack of access to clean water cause “An estimated 20 percent to 40 percent of hospital admissions and a large proportion of infant deaths.” There are numerous other ways in which we can see the suffering caused by water insecurity and scarcity. For example, the report notes the civil conflicts and migration that can be initiated by water insecurity. It also points out the gender discrimination implications of schools effectively forcing girls to not attend school during menstruation due to “Poor sanitation facilities in schools.” This is a clear example of an abuse of power and neglect of poverty by the Pakistani government. Yusma also informed that she believes the failure of the government to act is the primary reason for the situation becoming so dire. The report emphasizes this in detail, stating “Federal systems for water governance often have a complex patchwork of institutions, policies, and legal provisions at provincial and national levels.”


Yusma also emphasized that climate change is another key cause for the severity of the scarcity and security of water. The World Bank report acknowledges that climate change will create significant problems in the future such as “the risk of flood damage”, and that it is already the cause for “increasing flood frequencies in the Indus Basin.” 


A similar threat looms large on the glacial systems as well. According to the Guardian, they are melting because of climate change, and the “buffering role” they play to supply water during summer when there is less rain could be eliminated, meaning significant water shortages. The Guardian notes that this could lead to migration, although the World Bank report points out that “Long-term migration because of water stress and climate change has received significant attention in the popular press; however, little quantitative evidence exists. Heat stress appears to be a stronger predictor of migration.”


The future impact on humans by climate change is addressed by the report as well. It notes that there are numerous inevitable consequences on human practices and livelihoods “unless the targets of the Paris Agreement are achieved.” These include an “increase [] of deadly heatwaves by the end of the century,” specifically in “Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan.” Yusma mentioned the latter two of these regions being at significant risk. The report also states that “without improved demand management severe water shortages will increase.” It also points out that rising temperatures will drive increased demand for water in industrial sectors. It is worth including that there is no data currently available for Pakistan’s progress towards achieving their Paris Agreement mitigation goals, but very few countries are on target to reach these goals. Heatwaves and shortages in water mean that people are going to continue dying and at greater rates unless significant progress is made.


Water scarcity and water security are two major issues in Pakistan. The 2019 report by the World Bank explained the complicated and severe nature of the problem. Most noteworthy is the mismanagement of water resources, and a large increase in population. Climate change, an issue which has unfortunately been seemingly put on hold by the international community amid the devastating pandemic, will only make the water scarcity and security situation in Pakistan worse unless significant work is done by many, especially those in power.

By Troy Van Buskirk Barter

Troy Van Buskirk Barter is a recent graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is very passionate about global issues of human rights, social movements, and politics. His experience includes field research done in Buenos Aires interviewing butcher shop owners about how their businesses had been affected by the Paris Climate Agreement, in an effort to better understand the effects of international agreements on micro-level economies.

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