Groundwater Depletion in Pakistan
Pakistan has about 1.2 million tube wells extracting 50 million acre feet of water every year for farm irrigation. NASA satellite maps show that Pakistan is among the places worst affected by rapid depletion of groundwater.
|Water Stress Satellite Map Source: NASA|
A recent World Bank report titled "Groundwater in Pakistan’s Indus Basin : Present and Future Prospects" lays out the need for better groundwater management in Pakistan. Here are three key highlights of this reports:
1. Improved groundwater management is crucial for a healthy, wealthy, and green Pakistan. Pakistan’s Indus Basin Irrigation System is the largest artificial groundwater recharge system in the world, but the current water management paradigm doesn’t reflect it.
2. Over-abstraction, waterlogging and contamination threaten the crucial role of groundwater as a life-sustaining resource, which has cascading impacts on drought resilience, public health, and environmental sustainability.
3. For groundwater to remain a safe and reliable source of drinking water and a lifeline for tail-end farmers, a balance must be achieved between efficiency of the surface water system and sustainability of groundwater resources.
The World Bank report points to the need for better management of groundwater resources. One of the keys to groundwater management is to have an elaborate network of small dams and water reservoirs in strategic locations to recharge underground aquifers.
In recent years, Pakistan has begun to address its groundwater challenges, starting with the National Water Policy 2018 which identified priorities for groundwater management.
The NWP supports significant increases in the public sector investment for the water sector by the Federal Government from 3.7% of the development budget in 2017-18 to at least 10% in 2018-19 and 20% by 2030; the establishment of an apex body to approve legislation, policies and strategies for water resource development and management, supported by a multi- sectoral Steering Committee of officials at the working level; and the creation of a Groundwater Authority in Islamabad and provincial water authorities in each of the provinces.
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Islamabad : The government is likely to approve an ambitious plan to store floodwater in existing fifteen natural lakes linked with wetlands that would be a nature-based solution of its own kind in the country.
A high official of the climate change ministry told this correspondent that an international organization has recently submitted a report that stated that Pakistan stored only 9 percent of floodwater and the remaining amount went down to the Arabian Sea.
He said “The report pointed out that the melting of glaciers starts in the northern region and monsoon arrives from the southern region. All this happens within 100 days so the flow of water can be turned towards the natural lakes that are part of the wetland sites.”
The official said the natural lakes linked with wetlands can provide enough storage capacity and considerably ensure availability of water throughout the year.
He said there are one million tubewells in Pakistan due to which the level of underground water has reduced in last few decades, adding “The plan will also help recharge aquifer and raise the level of underground water. The whole country will benefit from this plan that is likely to be approved soon by the federal cabinet.”
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam has said the government is finding out nature-based solutions to the issue of water storage in the country. He said: “We have received a report from an international organization and it has shown us a path to store floodwater in existing natural lakes.”
These natural lakes are currently losing their water level so the plan would not only restore them to their original status but also help raise the level of groundwater in Pakistan, he said.
n America’s fruit and nut basket, water is now the most precious crop of all.
It explains why, amid a historic drought parching much of the American West, a grower of premium sushi rice has concluded that it makes better business sense to sell the water he would have used to grow rice than to actually grow rice. Or why a melon farmer has left a third of his fields fallow. Or why a large landholder farther south is thinking of planting a solar array on his fields rather than the thirsty almonds that delivered steady profit for years.
“You want to sit there and say, ‘We want to monetize the water?’ No, we don’t,” said Seth Fiack, a rice grower here in Ordbend, on the banks of the Sacramento River, who this year sowed virtually no rice and instead sold his unused water for desperate farmers farther south. “It’s not what we prefer to do, but it’s what we kind of need to, have to.”
These are among the signs of a huge transformation up and down California’s Central Valley, the country’s most lucrative agricultural belt, as it confronts both an exceptional drought and the consequences of years of pumping far too much water out of its aquifers. Across the state, reservoir levels are dropping and electric grids are at risk if hydroelectric dams don’t get enough water to produce power.
Climate change is supercharging the scarcity. Rising temperatures dry out the soil, which in turn can worsen heat waves. This week, temperatures in parts of California and the Pacific Northwest have been shattering records.
By 2040, the San Joaquin Valley is projected to lose at least 535,000 acres of agricultural production. That’s more than a tenth of the area farmed.
And if the drought perseveres and no new water can be found, nearly double that amount of land is projected to go idle, with potentially dire consequences for the nation’s food supply. California’s $50 billion agricultural sector supplies two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts and more than a third of America’s vegetables — the tomatoes, pistachios, grapes and strawberries that line grocery store shelves from coast to coast.
Glimpses of that future are evident now. Vast stretches of land are fallow because there’s no water. New calculations are being made about what crops to grow, how much, where. Millions of dollars are being spent on replenishing the aquifer that has been depleted for so long.
Nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the remote village of Ledoux has for more than a century relied on a network of irrigation ditches to water its crops. The outpost’s acequias, as New Mexico’s fabled canals are known, are replenished annually by snowmelt and rains. But with the Southwest locked in an unrelenting drought, they have begun to run dry.
“I never thought I’d witness such a crash in our water sources,” said Harold Trujillo, 71, a farmer in Ledoux who has seen his production of hay collapse to about 300 bales a year from 6,000. “I look at the mountains around us and ask: ‘Where’s the snow? Where are the rains?’”
Acequias — pronounced ah-SEH-kee-ahs — borrow their name from the Arabic term for water conduit, al-sāqiya. They are celebrated in song, books and verse, and they have endured in the state for centuries. Spanish colonists in New Mexico began digging the canals in the 1600s, building on water harvesting techniques honed by the Pueblo Indians.
Even then, the acequia reflected the blending of cultural traditions. Muslims introduced acequias in Spain after invading the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century, using gravity to manage irrigation flows. Acequias eventually spread around the Spanish-speaking world.
Making subsistence farming feasible in arid lands, New Mexico’s communally managed acequias persisted through uprisings, epidemics and wars of territorial conquest, preserving a form of small-scale democratic governance that took root before the United States existed as a country.
But in a sign of how climate change has begun to upend farming traditions across the Southwest, the megadrought afflicting New Mexico and neighboring states may amount to the acequias’ biggest challenge yet.
The difficulties confronting farmers in Ledoux — pronounced locally as Leh-DOOKS — exemplify those also facing hundreds of acequias around New Mexico, and a smaller number in southern Colorado and Texas.
Climate researchers say that the water shortages vexing the acequias are not surprising after years of warming temperatures, and that the depleted reservoirs and the spread of colossal wildfires around the West are a clear indication of the crisis.
The groundwater systems of northwest India and central Pakistan are among the most heavily exploited in the world. However, recent, and well-documented, groundwater depletion has not been historically contextualized. Here, using a long-term observation-well dataset, we present a regional analysis of post-monsoon groundwater levels from 1900 to 2010. We show that human activity in the early twentieth century increased groundwater availability before large-scale exploitation began in the late twentieth century. Net groundwater accumulation in the twentieth century, calculated in areas with sufficient data, was at least 420 km3 at ~3.6 cm yr–1. The development of the region’s vast irrigation canal network, which increased groundwater recharge, played a defining role in twentieth-century groundwater accumulation. Between 1970 and 2000, groundwater levels stabilized because of the contrasting effects of above-average rainfall and the onset of tubewell development for irrigation. Due to a combination of low rainfall and increased tubewell development, approximately 70 km3 of groundwater was lost at ~2.8 cm yr–1 in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Our results demonstrate how human and climatic drivers have combined to drive historical groundwater trends.
Pakistan has the world's fourth-highest rate of water use. Its water intensity rate — the amount of water, in cubic meters, used per unit of GDP — is the world's highest. This suggests that no country's economy is more water-intensive than Pakistan's. 1/n
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According to the IMF, Pakistan's per capita annual water availability is 1,017 cubic meters — perilously close to the scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. Back in 2009, Pakistan's water availability was about 1,500 cubic meters.2/n
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Pakistan is approaching the scarcity threshold for water. What is even more disturbing is that groundwater supplies are being rapidly depleted. And worst of all is that the authorities have given no indication that they plan to do anything about any of this. 3/n
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Pakistan may face a water shortage of 22-30% for six months starting from April 1 to September 30 during the Kharif season 2022.
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In 2025 Pakistan may face an acute water crisis. To avoid this outcome Islamabad must work dedicatedly on National Water Security, and plantation dives to protect and conserve natural climate. The problem is not due to water availability but the mismanagement of water
An official notification issued by the office of the Relief Commissioner and Provincial Disaster Management Authority here on Saturday said that the 10 districts are Loralai, Kalat, Mastung, Kachhi, Sibi, Qila Saifullah, Barkhan, Duki, Panjgur and Lasbela.
Meanwhile, heavy rains continued in different districts of northern and central Balochistan, causing more damages and rendering the people homeless. A large number of villages in Sibi, Lasbela, Bolan, Qila Saifullah and Loralai districts were washed away or submerged due to floods and overflowing rivers.
Over 30 houses were damaged in villages located on the outskirts of Sibi on Friday night.
“Our rescue teams and Levies personnel were making all-out efforts to clear water from areas where flood and rainwater has accumulated,” Sibi Deputy Commissioner Mansoor Qazi told Dawn, adding that residents deprived of their homes were provided with shelter and relief goods.
“Though floodwater is reducing in the three main rivers, more flooding cannot be ruled out in view of more rains,” he said.
Lasbela district was also getting more rains in different areas which caused damages to homes in Winder, Kanraj and Bela areas where standing cotton and other crops were badly damaged. “A cotton field was completely destroyed in heavy rains and flash flood,” officials of the local administration said.
“Around a dozen people were stranded in a village in Lakhra area. They were rescued by the local administration with the help of Navy personnel,” Rohana Kakar, additional deputy commissioner, said, adding that the Hub dam was almost filled to capacity and its water level wa being continuously monitoring.
Meanwhile, the death toll of the rain-related incident in the province has reached 77. Over 1,000 houses were washed away and 500 heads of cattle were swept away in the floodwater.
The National Disaster Management Authority has sent 1,000 tents to Balochistan for the rain-stricken people.
Probe ordered into poor construction of breached dams
Balochistan Chief Minister Abdul Qudoos Bizenjo has ordered a probe into the alleged use of sub-standard construction material after at least 21 dams either gave way or were greatly damaged due to floods, especially in northern districts.
He has ordered inspection teams to survey these dams along with experts.
The irrigation department surveyed 503 big and small dams in 34 districts on the chief minister’s orders and found that most of them have been filled to capacity, including Hub, Mirani, Ankara Kur, Shadi Kur and Subakzai dams.
The report said the water storage level in the dams across the province had reached 1,208,872 acre-feet after rains compared to a capacity of 1,637,084 acre-feet.
More than a thousand years ago, Alberuni wrote, “India has once been a sea which by degrees has been filled up by the alluvium of the streams.” This view was later endorsed in the late 19th century by Austrian geologist Eduard Suess, who named the sea ‘Tethys Ocean’. Mike Searle, in his 2013 book Colliding Continents explains that the Himalayas resulted from collision of the Indian plate with the Eurasian plate 50 million years ago.
The Indus river and its Sutlej tributary both existed prior to this collision and drained into the Tethys Ocean. The collision gradually closed the sea and the remnants of the Tethys were filled by the material of eroding mountains deposited by the flowing rivers.
The Indus rivers have carried huge silt loads for millions of years, depositing them in the plains all the way to the delta. In their 1988 book, Irrigated Agriculture of Pakistan, Nazir Ahmad and Ghulam Rasul Chaudhry explained that high sediment loads in the Indus river system have created nearly 200,000 square kilometres of flatlands. These flatlands, to a considerable depth, are made up of unconsolidated and granular formations, capable of holding large volumes of water. “This reservoir of water is so vast, it ranks among the natural wonders of the world,” the authors write as they describe the groundwater resources of the Indus basin.
Aloys Arthur Michel, in his 1967 book, The Indus Rivers, describes these alluvial deposits as unconsolidated material, deeper than one mile, forming a large homogeneous groundwater reservoir with a capacity “at least ten times the annual runoff of the Indus rivers”.
This begs the question, that if we knew about this groundwater storage potential for decades, why has it never been discussed in the mainstream planning for sustainable exploitation to benefit the inhabitants of the Indus basin?
The reasons could have been many. The military dictatorship in place at the time of the signing of the Indus Water Treaty set a future discourse on the harnessing of surface waters only; a drift into debt economy and the lure of easy dollars in mega infrastructure projects for water; interest groups pushing large dams in the 1950s and 60s – an era when the whole world was going on a binge of building large dams; a lack of capacity at home to scrutinise proposals being advised by foreign ‘experts’ with vested interests; the obvious advantages of the visibility of big structures which can be loudly publicised in political arenas and so on. The result was that Pakistan chose the path of building mega-dams, river diversions and gravity-based flood irrigation systems. In doing so, we severely deteriorated our aquifers through waterlogging, salinity, unmanaged abstractions and indiscriminate pollution.
But that was the past. Is it possible to pursue a different path now?
First, given the fact that this vast aquifer sits on top of a filled-up sea, its deeper formations are naturally saline. In the northern parts of the alluvial plains, the aquifer may hold sweet water up to a depth of a thousand feet or so, but as one moves south, the depth of sweet water gradually reduces.