Looking for Remedies to Our Water Woes

Client: Daily Times
10th May 2019

“We have been in the business of building, neglecting and rebuilding instead of building and maintaining,” poignantly stated Arif Nadeem, the former Punjab irrigation secretary. He was speaking at the Consortium for Development Policy Research. The session on Reforming Water Management in Pakistan was held on October 30, 2018. It brought out key problems in water policy in the Punjab. Yet, it did only that: sift out the challenges. It stopped short of offering solutions. A participant rightfully asked the panel, “What about the state of institutional inertia? How do you recommend we resolve the issue?” Muhammad Mohsin Leghari, the irrigation minister, said, “It is simple. Political parties are afraid of losing votes. It is they who have failed to build political leadership and build a consensus. It is time to take ownership of the issue.”

There was once a lot of water in the rivers fed by glacier melt and abundant rains. The rivers fed the irrigation canals. Pakistan had the world’s best continuous irrigation system that other nations once studied. “It was considered the Mecca of irrigation”, boasted Leghari. Demand for water rose with a booming population and urbanisation. As surface water grew scarce, people turned to groundwater. Pakistan and India share one of the world’s largest aquifers. The installation of tube wells began and has continued. For decades it sustained the irrigated agriculture. In times of plenty one rarely ever imagines the worst.

Where we once found potable water 20 feet below the surface now we have to dig as far as 800. Aquifers are ancient lakes that take millions of years to fill. We have dried ours up, never to replenish. The NASA is using satellite imagery to show changes in the aquifer, to help authorities in making better water management decisions. As glaciers melt precipitation is erratic, freshwater is becoming scarce. This is particularly so for the poor. Thank you, global warming-induced climate change.

The little freshwater now available to us faces another threat. A trip to the River Ravi, near Kamran’s Baradari, is an overwhelming experience. The stench burns your nostrils, and the colour of the water is abhorrent. The river, once lush with biodiversity and home to 31 species of fish, has been declared a dead zone. This is due to upstream municipal and industrial waste. Hudiara as well as other storm drains pouring into the river bring waste that poisons settlements downstream. The wastewater flow into the river varies from 65 cusecs to 584,000 cusecs a day.

It is no surprise that a drug resistant typhoid has evolved in Sindh. Up to 5,274 cases of drug-resistant typhoid out of 8,188 typhoid fever cases were reported by the Provincial Disease Surveillance and Response Unit, between November 2016 and December 2018. According to the WHO, Pakistan has the world’s second highest prevalence of hepatitis cases, for which credible statistics are still not available. Untreated water is a mammoth challenge; the Indus and its rivers are being used as a sewer.

Yet, all hope is not lost. The first ever citizen-driven legal action on water pollution began when the Lahore Conservation Society cried out at the polythene bag pollution in River Ravi in 2007. Key organisations were called on, including the Environmental Protection Department, the Water and Sanitation Agency, the Lahore Development Authority, NGOs like the Worldwide Fund for Nature and citizen experts.

More probing revealed more problems and push for solutions. In 2011, a River Ravi Commission was set up to propose a sustainable roadmap for water pollution. Secretary to the RRC, Rafay Alam pleads, “It is a misconception that water issues are related to dams, barrages and such. Clean drinking water is every citizen’s fundamental right”.

Once there was a lot of water in the rivers fed by glacier melt and abundant rains and feeding the irrigation canals

It was decided that the EPD would provide the RRC with a list of industries that comply with waste-treatment standards; so that the RRC can examine the energy requirements of various waste treatment options as well as waste-to-energy technology available, bringing the private sector to accountability. The RRC suggested the development of constructed wetlands and a bioremediation pilot, for 10 cusecs of wastewater treatment at the National Agriculture Research Centre. This was established on 50 acres at Babu Sabu, with six ponds, that would then irrigate the surrounding NARC orchards. Bioremediation is the use of micro organisms, plants and enzymes to remove pollutants from the water. It is a low cost, home-grown solution to address the issue of water pollution plaguing the River Ravi. The research found the treated water within permissible National Environmental Quality Standards. The report was submitted to the LDA and the WASA, and the government of Punjab announced the River Ravi Riverfront Development Project. This body is to carry out research and development projects regarding pollution control.

It was suggested that the bioremediation plants be replicated along the river. However, the provincial government simultaneously announced the River Ravi Bund Project, which has a pollution control component. Thus, as usual, cost and bureaucratic backstops have delayed the process. The government has made no headway into pollution control projects since 2016.

Other countries have begun solving their water scarcity issues. Israel after suffering consecutive years of drought managed to resolve its water crisis through the development of a National Water Carrier, desalination plants, major water recycling, awareness raising, moving away from water-intensive agriculture and towards drip irrigation. Cape Town was able to push back its D-Day indefinitely simply through raising awareness and limiting individual citizen use to 30 gallons a day. Pitch Africa (a US non-profit organisation) offers the most commendable solution through rainwater harvesting. By architecturally designing schools and football stadiums, rainwater is collected in the centre of each building. Such a solution unites communities, brings children (especially girls) to school when they would otherwise have spent their time scavenging for water and ensures the availability of pure freshwater for all.

The research and potential infrastructure already exist. They are there for the government to take and exploit. Currently, the biggest issue is creating political consensus, lack of awareness and different provincial jurisdictions. The water issue needs to be recognised as the nation’s most important problem. The delta should not be seen as Sindh’s issue alone. Hard decisions must be taken now in order to mitigate serious problems that lie 5 years down the road.

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