Opinions, Water

Pakistan must act now to ensure water supply for agriculture

ISLAMABAD: Earth’s 70% surface is covered with water. It seems that this quantity would be sufficient to meet people’s needs.

A mere 3% of the global water resources are freshwater that is fit for human consumption. Of this, only 1% is accessible by humans as the other 2% is packed in frozen glaciers.

The United Nations maintains that water on earth is enough for 7 billion people but unequal distribution, mismanagement and wastage make it inadequate. Around 70% of global freshwater is used for crop irrigation. Around 20% is for the industry and the remaining 10% for human consumption.

Water availability per capita in Pakistan has dropped from 5,260 cubic metres in 1951 to 1,040 cubic metres in 2010. This drastic fall places Pakistan in the category of water-stressed countries that are ultimately headed towards water scarcity.

Prime factors such as population explosion, water mismanagement and impact of climate change are responsible for such a change in water availability.

According to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2016-17, the share of agricultural output in the gross domestic product (GDP) is 19.5% and the sector employs an astounding 42.3% of the labour force.

As population rises, the need for agricultural production is also increasing. Water requirements for different crops, including wheat and rice, could rise steeply in forthcoming decades on account of the impact of global warming induced by a rise in global temperatures.

The World Bank, in a report, states that the change in water availability and variability can induce migrations, incite conflicts and reduce GDP by 6%.

Water is essential for agriculture and so is its share in GDP. However, the need for water is increasing for industrial and domestic uses as well. Is there an effective way out that can help carve out a tradeoff among these competing forces?

As Pakistan uses 93% of its freshwater resources on agriculture, there is a need to improve the efficiency rate which currently stands at 50%.

The United Nations is of the opinion that potential savings from an increase in efficiency of water for agriculture globally can be worth $115 billion annually by 2030 (2011 prices). Moreover, the provision of more efficient water technologies to some 100 million poor farmers will generate an estimated direct net benefit of $100-200 billion.

National water policy

For more than a decade, a draft of the national water policy has been in circulation among relevant government departments but no concrete action has been taken so far for its approval.

Water is a provincial matter and the federal government can only put the policy forward as guidance. It is the responsibility of the centre to bring all provinces on board in relation to acceptance of the water policy through the Council of Common Interests.

All responsibilities and checks should be clearly defined and mapped out for the provinces to follow. The draft also says the need of water for agriculture will grow in the wake of increasing demand for food. A lack of proper maintenance of the canal system, silting of dams and rising domestic and industrial needs are also the factors behind the decrease in water availability.

There is a need to improve the efficiency of water use through better farm practices and well-maintained and expanded irrigation infrastructure. However, political and constitutional hitches delay the announcement and formal acceptance of the water policy.

Pakistan’s Vision 2025 highlights the need for an effective pricing mechanism and methods to conserve and efficiently use water through structured methods as a way forward to reduce water scarcity in the country. The document proposes the constitution of a national water commission to monitor water resources and their allocation to agriculture, industry and other domestic uses. These suggestions and recommendations would only bear fruit once the policies are put into action.

The United Nations World Water Development Report (2015) states that by 2050, the developed world will have to increase its food production by 60% and developing countries by 100%.

The need of water for agriculture will certainly increase amid the rise in food production. If Pakistan cannot increase the supply of freshwater, then efficiency in food production may not be achieved and hence somehow we will have to create a balance between supply and demand of freshwater.

As water scarcity increases, the vulnerability of the agriculture sector to climate change will rise too. Arguably, by fighting climate change successfully through mitigation and adoption strategies, Pakistan can ensure improvement in performance of its agriculture sector.

We cannot ensure endless supply of water rather we need to look at increasing efficiency of water consumption. Water efficiency can be enhanced by its pricing, involvement of communities and utilising latest technologies that help increase equity and sustainability.

Innovative technologies include direct seeding, drip irrigation, micro-irrigation, low-energy precision application of sprinklers, recycling and treatment of wastewater.

Policymakers must ensure sufficient expenditure on agricultural research and development to improve crop varieties to make them resilient to climate change. The resilient crops should be high-yielding, tolerant to heat and water stress, and less prone to viral attacks. Pakistan cannot wait any further. The time to act is now.

By Ahmed Awais Khaver, The writer works at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute as project assistant and specialises in environment, water governance and flood management