By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio
Water is key to food security. Meeting mounting food needs of a burgeoning population increasingly depends on efficient use of the water. That is possible if people are educated about its prudent use.
According to the a UN Water, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Water is fundamental to that security.
Climate change has emerged as a grave threat to rapidly depleting freshwater resources – a scenario that calls for urgent measures at levels from government to farmers for efficient water management.
According to Freshwater Under Threat: South Asia, a report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), per capita availability of water in the Indus basin, which lies below the Hindu Kush, Karakorum, and Himalayan mountains and is shared by Afghanistan, China, India, and Pakistan, is nearly 1,329 cubic metres per year.
According to the World Resource Institute, a basin reaches ‘‘water stress’’ when per capita water supply is less than 1,700 cubic metres per year.
But water availability per capital in Pakistan is much less – below 1,100 cubic meters a year, down from 5,500 meters a year in 1950, according to government reports.
“Unsustainable mining of underground water for agricultural, industrial and domestic purposes, inadequate application of water-efficient technologies by farmers and lack of industrialists’ interest in adopting water recycling technologies for one or other reason, and lack of awareness among domestic consumers are the main causes of the present gruesome state of water resources in the country”, said Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, Asia director for the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and head of LEAD Pakistan, an organisation focused on the environment and sustainable development.
Unsustainable development practices, intrusion of salinity into the ground water, contamination of underground water with harmful chemicals - such as fluoride and arsenic - and unchecked polluting of subsoil water by unsafe disposal of urban and industrial waste have added to the country’s water woes.
CLIMATE IMPACTS IN WATER
In Pakistan, climate change impacts are expressing themselves in water. Rainfall is erratic, uneven and unpredictable across different parts of the country and varies dramatically by season. These variations are the chief cause of increasingly severe floods and droughts.
Environmental experts like Sheikh say that the impacts of these weather events on economic development are grave. Severe floods affect millions of people and damage infrastructure; and too little rain lowers food production and leads to hunger, malnutrition and financial loss for families which eke out their livelihood from agriculture.
Climate change adaptation initiatives should be made part of established and upcoming water-resource management programmes. Measures for water management could include 'soft' solutions, such as collecting more data to monitor water resources and understanding rainfall patterns to improve early warning systems, and 'hard' solutions such as building dams, reservoirs or other engineering structures to help with water storage.
“To cope with the mounting pressure on water resources, the first step as a part of series of strategies should be to boost understanding… about efficient water use,” suggested Mahjabeen Khan, an environmentalist at the Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE).
Other strategies could include: switching to drought-tolerant crops and livestock breeds, modifying irrigation technique, adopting practices such as zero-tillage to conserve soil moisture, changing crop calendars or grazing times, and implementing seasonal climate forecasting, he said.
Changing policy will also be key. Long-term, country-specific water policies need to be created with input from major water users, including agriculture, livestock and fisheries, manufacturing, industry and municipal water use.
Abdul Hafeez, country programme manager at WaterAid-Pakistan in Islamabad, said that institutional and governance reforms are the need of the hour to strike a balance between demand and supply.
He said that government planners and policymakers, in collaboration with non-government organizations, will need to develop their knowledge and skills and those of water users to understand and prepare for the new challenges posed by climate change.
Saleem Shaikh and Sugha Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan.