Water Challenges in Pakistan

Water security is an increasingly important issue that constitutes one of the biggest challenges to Pakistan’s development. With a projected population of 263 million in the year 2050, Pakistan needs to put serious thought into how it will provide adequate water for agriculture, industry, and human consumption in the face of rapidly dwindling reserves.

The 20th century approach to water management involved large-scale reservoirs, link canals, and interbasin transfers. This allowed for Pakistan’s agriculture sector to grow which relies on the single largest contiguous irrigation system in the world. Agriculture also happens to be the largest sub-sector of water use, as it consumes around 93% of total water resources available (surface and groundwater). Thus, mismanagement of water will have its biggest impact on Pakistan’s agricultural sector.

Today, Pakistan also fosters one of the lowest crop yields per unit of water in the world. In fact, irrigation delivery systems in the Indus basin have under-performed historically despite large investments in civil infrastructures and management institutions. It is increasingly being realized that many of the technical and institutional challenges are really problems of scales, such as the inability to monitor and maintain geographically extensive infrastructures; the inability to collect information, reconfigure and react within short time spans and the inability to scale-up human expertise across institutions. To tackle the challenges of scale, we must move to the next generation of smart water management, which will be ICT powered and involve extensive knowledge transfers and virtual water transfers. It will help ensure that technological innovation and coupled water and energy systems models address the full scope of food security needs.

Pakistan’s water issues are multi-dimensional. There is no single, all-encompassing problem, but instead multiple, interrelated problems. Therefore, systems analysis becomes key to help the country develop optimal solutions to its challenges.