Tackling Rising Water Issues in Pakistan
Dr. Farrukh Chishtie and Mr. Sultan Kiani
Water scarcity and quality in South Asia is a ‘ticking time bomb’, yet it is often overlooked by the governments. The experts have warned that if mitigation measures are not taken, Pakistan could face severe water scarcity by 2040 leading to horrific humanitarian crisis.
Rising population, unchecked and haphazard rapid urbanization and climate change are making the bad situation worse. Availability of fresh water in Pakistan has dipped to just 1,000 cubic meters per capita, which is below the water scarcity threshold. In 1960s, it was 3,950 cubic meters which dropped to 1600 in 1991. This is the reason why Pakistan has been put at 3rd position in the IMF’s list of countries facing acute water scarcity. The researchers fear that freshwater availability could further reduce to just 860 cubic meters by end of 2025!
We visited Pakistan Council for Research in Water Recourses (PCRWR) to learn how government agencies are working to tackle this alarming situation. They have installed working models designed to conserve water at PCRWR’s headquarters in Islamabad.
We interviewed Dr. Muhammad Ashraf, the Chairman, PCRWR for Monthly Subh-e-Nau magazine. Here’s what he revealed about his organization working for the exploration and conservation of freshwater resources in Pakistan:
Subh-e-Nau: The quality of domestic water supply and most of the public filtration plants is quite bad, how can we make this unsafe water drinkable?
Dr. Muhammad Ashraf: I can’t recommend a universal water treatment method to make it potable. The method we need to use depends on the type and concentration of contaminants found in water you intend to use for drinking purpose. If there’s nothing other than bacterial contaminants, then you can simply bring it to boil and then use it after cooling it down. However, if your water contains heavy metals or any kind of chemical contamination, then you’d need a filter specifically designed to remove those impurities from the water. Therefore, one must get the water sample tested before buying a filter/purifier for it.
SN: What’s the cost of water quality test for drinking purpose?
Dr. Ashraf: The average cost of a simple water quality test to check its drinkability costs around 3000 Rupees per sample. We test all basic parameters to assess whether it’s suitable for human consumption and also suggest the most appropriate filtration technique it is found to be unsuitable. Comprehensive water quality tests are also available at PCRWR but they’re costly.
SN: How effective is PCRWR in raising public awareness and influencing policy makers to focus on this neglected issue?
Dr. Ashraf: I consider my organization doing well. We have achieved many goals; like a few years ago, Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo motu notice of nationwide water scarcity mainly because of our research findings. It eventually pushed the government to prioritize water resource management in their policies to curb worsening situation. We also initiated quality testing of all (bottled) mineral water producers and pointed out those companies selling substandard quality water to safeguard public health. We regularly organize awareness programs in educational institutions and our teams always assist farmers and other citizens to help them conserve water by adapting different suitable techniques.
SN: Tell us about your most successful projects
Dr. Ashraf: We’ve recently completed Groundwater Investigations and Mapping in the Lower Indus Basin Plain which is one of the most successful projects of PCRWR during my tenure. This research work contains valuable information which can revolutionize water resource management in Pakistan. We have installed a public water purification plant at PCRWR’s headquarter in Islamabad which provides 3000 gallons of pure drinking water every day!
SN: There’s severe water shortage in Gwadar, the new emerging port in Baluchistan. How can we resolve this issue to make it a liveable city?
Dr. Ashraf: It seems like a problem, but I believe that with technology and dedication, we can fix it by discovering the pockets of freshwater aquifers in Gwadar. Desalination also is the ultimate solution to the problem but provision of fresh and clean drinking water to Gwadar is not an impossible task.
Water scarcity is a real threat, it is time to realize it. We need to become socially responsible nation to unanimously solve this problem before it is too late. Conserve water at home, school and work, switch to more efficient irrigation mechanism and install rainwater harvester at your home. Water is life, we cannot survive without it.
Engineer Arslan Mumtaz from PCRWR also briefed us about Rainwater Harvesting, Groundwater Recharge methods, garden sprinklers and drip irrigation systems. Let us learn about these water conservation techniques everyone can install at their home, office, or commercial business.
Rainwater Harvesting System: When it rains, the water from rooftop drainage is allowed to runoff which could be stored for later usage, hence reducing the reliance on scarce clean and fresh water supply. PCRWR has installed a model Rainwater Harvesting tank which collects reasonable amount of runoff water from their rooftop. They have measuring level meter installed on the tank which is connected to drip irrigation system used to water their organic garden. “Rainwater can be utilized for all purposes including drinking, washing and irrigation. The level of filtration one needs to employ depends on its utilization purpose”, says Arslan Mumtaz, the water conservation expert. “If you want to use it for drinking, then you’d need to install a filter and may also add a disinfection mechanism to make it fit for human consumption. However, you can just use rainwater without filtration if irrigation is the sole purpose”, he added. This is very simple; all you need is some plumbing tools, pipes and a tank to collect rainwater. You can Do It Yourself (DIY) by making slight modifications to rooftop drainage in a way it feeds rainwater into the tank, allowing the overflow discharge to where it should go.
Estimated installation cost of a basic rainwater harvester without filtration system for a small (under 1000 square feet) house starts from 10,000 Rupees, as of August 2021. The cost is well justified when a water bowser costs around 1000 to 1500 Rupees which hardly lasts for 2 weeks in summer! You can easily cut your water costs by using collected rainwater for non-drinking purposes.
With the increasing impacts of climate change and pandemics, we must act rapidly towards adopting sustainability practices which ensure the well-being of ourselves and upcoming generations.
The advantages of adopting rainwater harvesting
1. Rainwater harvesting systems are integrated with the house which makes the water easily accessible.
2. Rainwater harvesting systems are personal which prevents arguments about who should take care of maintenance.
3. Installation costs are low; roughly some 250 US$ per system including a slow sand filter while sustainability of the construction is larger than that of a pump or wel.
4. The required skills are present in ANY community which makes adaptation easy.
5. The used materials can be kept simple, are obtainable nearly everywhere at local (low) cost price.
6. The construction is easy and cheap in maintenance.
7. In areas where there is inadequate groundwater supply or surface resources are either lacking or insufficient, rainwater harvesting offers an ideal solution.
8. Helps in utilizing the primary source of water and prevent the runoff from going into sewer or storm drains, thereby reducing the load on treatment plants.
9. Reduces urban flooding.
10. Recharging water into the aquifers help in improving the quality of existing groundwater through dilution.
Ground Water Recharge: Where rainwater harvesting is a well-known thing, very few people in Pakistan would ever hear about the concept of ‘Rainwater Recharge’.
When it rains, water is infiltrated into the ground recharging the aquifers, so the water table maintains its level. However, this natural water cycle badly disturbs when we concretize urban areas in the name of development. This results in more water running off the surface and only negligible amount of rainwater is infiltrated resulting in dropped water table.
To make bad situation even worse, we are also making boreholes in every corner severely affecting the natural water cycle. This not only causes water scarcity but can also trigger another deadly phenomenon which is commonly known as ‘Subsidence’. It happens when acute drop in ground water table causes the soil to lose hydraulic conductivity making it unable to support heavy building structures. Even those heavy structures built on the strongest foundations could fail. Therefore, groundwater recharge becomes a need of the hour to save water and minimize the risk of subsidence. It has two major types:
i. Soak Way Pit: Also known as ‘Leach Pit’, is a covered, permeable chamber that allows rainwater to slowly infiltrate into the ground. It has the layers of (sand/gravel) filtration mechanism to prevent the pollutants from reaching the aquifer. It’s very simple yet effective method of recharging groundwater in rapidly expanding cities. The recharge water could directly be sourced by rooftop drainage or an over-flow pipe of rainwater harvesting tank could be directed towards soak way pit optimizing the benefits of rainwater collection.
ii. Recharge Well: It is also known as ‘Injection Well’ where rainwater is directly injected into the subsurface through a well specifically designed for the recharge purpose. This model is more effective to replenish deeper aquifers. It is made of a concrete ring lined structure, usually 1 to 1.5 metres wide and 3 to 8 metres deep. It also has filtration mechanism to prevent contamination.
Rainwater harvesting and recharging do not only help conserve water and reduce the risk of subsidence, but they also found to be helpful in mitigating urban flash floods in monsoon season.
iii. Sprinklers & Drip Irrigation: Both methods are designed to minimize water usage in agriculture sector. Drip irrigation saves water and nutrients by allowing water to drip slowly to the plant’s roots with minimum evaporation. A Water Sprinkler is used to irrigate agricultural crops and different other plants. In Sprinkler irrigation, water is applied to the plants to simulate light rainfall or drizzle. This method could be a better option for sandy soils. It also helps wash off dirt and harmful insects from plants’ leaves which is not possible in drip irrigation.
You can learn more about water conservation techniques by watching demonstration videos on our YouTube Channel ‘A New Dawn’.
We should save water and other resources by local practices as rains are hard to come by these days especially during the upcoming monsoon season. With regular handwashing a key requirement, saving water will be useful due to this increased demand by the COVID-19 pandemic. As is the case, much of the water is lost and to add insult to injury it is oftentimes allowed in the monsoon season to flood and kill people! A great amount of this precious being can be saved if each rain season is literally turned into a “rainwater harvesting season” and saving this will help at all levels, especially for ensuring health in the time of the pandemic. All food production rests on water, and since life is dependent on water, we do a favor to ourselves and others by switching to water conservation (see Box “Tips for public usage of water” for some tips).
If conservation is followed with conviction, it means managing through periods of pandemics that Pakistan now is experiencing along with other impacts such as droughts on a regular basis. Unfortunately, as trite as the whole idea of conservation of water has been made out to be, the time is nigh and now that such a philosophy guides all efforts in solving our current and impending water shortages. This includes water recycling and rain harvesting, which as the words imply, is a most elegant and practical means to save especially in the time of this crisis. On the other hand, given that rains are now scarce and erratic, we can also extensively employ such practices in times of epidemics and pandemics, while also beating water quality and scarcity we are presently facing.
Tips for public usage of water:
Individual responsibility needed in solving water crisis:
Use a pan for dish cleaning, instead of a running sink tap
Avoid using a running shower; use a bucket instead
Use recycled water for gardening, such as saved ‘Wudu’ water
Monitor and repair, in a timely manner of leaking taps and pipes
Clean cars with a bucket instead of using a pipe
Employ smaller flush tanks for saving water
Consider dietary changes towards less meat consumption, which takes twice as much water to cook than vegetable dishes.
Save water via rainwater harvesting.