On Tuesday, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Water and Power Khawaja Asif said that a major water shortage is imminent in the country. Lower rainfall, more frequent droughts, lack of adequate storage, and severe mismanagement have reduced Pakistan’s water availability by 500% since its independence in 1947. Currently at 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, Pakistan’s level is equal to that of parched Ethiopia. “Under the present situation, in the next six to seven years, Pakistan can be a water-starved country,” Asif warned. This will severely restrain economic growth, daily business and agriculture, and society’s basic functioning, which are already strained by crippling electricity and fuel shortages.
Pakistan is not the only country suffering severe and chronic water-scarcity crises in South Asia. Bangladesh has more available water per person than India or Pakistan but lacks the infrastructure to store and redistribute the monsoon season’s rains. It faces drought throughout much of the rest of the year; growing demand from its rapid, uncontrolled development has caused groundwater levels to drop an average of three meters per year. Bangladesh’s larger problem is how shockingly polluted its water supplies are. Only 40% of the population has access to proper sanitation, meaning a staggering 60% lacks access to safe drinking water. Exacerbating the problem, the available water is becoming increasingly saline. (India’s diversion of water upstream for its domestic irrigation reduces the flow to downstream Bangladesh and results in greater salinity.) The rising oceans are also inundating Bangladesh’s flat coastal areas and saltwater intrusions into rivers reach further and further.
But worst of all is the contamination of Bangladesh’s groundwater by arsenic. The carcinogen was first detected there in the 1990s but is of such a scale that ongoing cleanup efforts have only partially addressed the problem. Chronic exposure to arsenic through contaminated drinking water and crops has amounted to the largest mass poisoning in history, affecting an estimated 30-35 million people in Bangladesh, where it accounts for the death of 1 out of every 5 people.
While India is classified as “water-stressed,” it has around 50% more water available per person than Pakistan even though its population is nearly seven times as large. The total volume of water originating from India’s Himalayan snowcap sources is far larger than what its downstream neighbors receive. However, India faces huge problems of how to distribute that to drier states. Decentralization of power and lack of coordination between Indian states has brought about a dysfunctional and inefficient status quo, with many local governments locked in intractable disputes over water use quotas. New Delhi has a hugely ambitious and controversial engineering plan to connect 37 rivers through 30 excavated links and build 3,000 storage areas along the way, but construction will only add to the number of interstate water disputes.
Furthermore, tensions over water contribute to mutually antagonistic foreign policy, as all parties share a zero-sum mindset. According to a Chatham House report from June 2014, “India’s classification of a range of data as secret – notably information pertaining to rivers that flow into downstream neighbours – does little to build trust. Rather, it allows critics, particularly in Pakistan, to apportion blame to the Indian government for shortages or floods downstream.”
Water scarcity will only become more pressing given the troubling simultaneous trends of climate change and population growth in South Asia. The situation is crying out for innovative solutions, and Pakistan has unveiled a scheme that could be replicated elsewhere. To combat a drought in southern Sindh province that turned 80% of the area’s water undrinkable, the provincial government inaugurated a solar-powered water purification plant in January which has the largest capacity of any in Asia. At a cost of $4 million, the facility will treat 3 million gallons of water daily, enough to meet the water needs of 300,000 people in the town of Mithi and 80 surrounding villages. The provincial government will spend $53 million for 750 solar-powered reverse-osmosis plants to be up and running by June in Sindh.
The vast majority of water use throughout South Asia is for agriculture, which has tremendous room for improvements that could free up water for consumers. 97% of Pakistan’s water is used for agriculture, a sector that employs 43% of the population, but a third of all the water from Pakistan’s irrigation system is lost en route to seepage. Maintaining and upgrading the existing infrastructure is a far better investment than the usual “build/neglect/rebuild” model. More efficient alternatives can be scaled up, such as drip irrigation (which works wonders in Israel) and India’s solar panels built over irrigation canals.