ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Inadequate planning is exposing Pakistan to water-related threats from climate change and putting the country’s agriculture, industry and hydropower at risk, water experts say.
Speaking at a water summit in Pakistan recently, they said the country desperately needs more reservoirs to increase its water storage capacity, and they called for conservation awareness campaigns, the introduction of drought-tolerant crop varieties and more economical irrigation.
“The country is gravely vulnerable to water-related (effects) of the changing weather patterns,” said Pakistan’s minister for planning, development and reform, Ahsan Iqbal, in a keynote address at the summit in the nation’s capital.
In December, the World Resources Institute ranked Pakistan among the 36 most water-stressed countries in the world.
Iqbal said that Pakistan needs a minimum storage capacity of 40 percent of the around 115 million acre-feet of water available in the Indus river system throughout the year. But the country’s storage capacity is only 7 percent and is decreasing due to sediment build-up in reservoirs.
This gives Pakistan a stored water supply, adequate to meet its needs, of just 30 days. By contrast, “carryover capacity” in other countries ranges from 200 days in India to 1,000 days in Egypt, he said.
“In Pakistan, planners and policy makers across different sectors, including agriculture and industry, energy and health now have ... a daunting challenge before them of increasing the country’s water storage capacity,” Iqbal said.
The minister urged the finance ministry to explore funding avenues for new water storage projects to boost storage capacity. Many of these are hydroelectric dams, which would also produce power.
THREATS TO HYDROPOWER, AGRICULTURE
But Pakistan Water Partnership’s country director, Pervaiz Amir, warned that if climate change leads to lower water flows in the northwest of the country, it would cut the amount of hydroelectricity that can be produced.
More variable rainfall and glacier melt in the face of climate change also means that agriculture, which he said accounts for over 96 percent of the country’s water consumption, will be affected, Amir said.
Without more facilities to divert and store water, heavy rainfall and flooding in some parts of the country will continue to damage crops, increase soil erosion and delay planting and harvesting, he said.
Pakistan ranks ninth among countries most affected by floods, according to UN-Water’s World Water Development Report.
Arun Shrestha, a senior climate change specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), said that many South Asian countries lack preparedness for water-related hazards, including flood, droughts and glacial lake outburst floods, and instead focus mainly on post-disaster relief.
What is “more appalling,” he said, is that climate change is dealt with as a separate problem rather than integrated into planning for water-related areas of the government and economy including agriculture, industry, health and energy.
Shrestha urged South Asian countries to include disasters attributable to climate change in their respective water-related planning and policies.
He called for them to analyse their vulnerabilities to increasingly frequent flooding, droughts and glacial lake outburst floods, and to share the findings with each other to develop a regional action plan for dealing with climate-related disasters.
Shrestha underlined the need for regional coordination between government agencies so that river basins can be managed more efficiently, for example by sharing data about river flows.
Stephen Davies, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said that water, food and energy are closely interconnected, yet energy models do not properly address water constraints in South Asia and other regions.
Industrial growth and accelerating urbanisation are creating greater demand for energy, he said, but efforts to expand hydropower generation are being hampered by the shrinking availability of water.
Limitations on water availability also are impacting food production to meet the country’s galloping population growth, he added.
Chief executive of LEAD Pakistan and climate policy expert Tauqeer Ali Sheikh urged policymakers to incorporate the interdependence of water, food and energy into their planning.
In South Asia, “energy planning is often made without taking into account possible changes in water availability due to climate change or other water competing uses,” he pointed out.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Islamabad, Pakistan.