ISLAMABAD (AlertNet) – Fatima Batool lives in a two-story house in a posh residential area of Islamabad that features shiny air-conditioned shopping plazas and restaurant-lined streets.
But for the past two months, she has been lacking one key thing: water. As the reservoirs that supply Pakistan’s capital with water run dry, so has Batool’s tap.
“It really feels traumatic, like living in a village, when one has taps like this without water for weeks,” said the 34-year-old mother of three, as she tested a tap in her courtyard without success.
Her children, anxiously scratching their bodies, have gone without a bath for the past two weeks, she said.
“This is first time that our neighbourhood has gone without water for weeks since we moved here from Lahore,” said Batool, who has lived in Islamabad for 10 years.
An escalating water shortage in and around Pakistan’s bustling capital has been caused by population growth and a combination of failing rains and high temperatures which experts link to climate change.
SURGE IN DRILLING
The shortages, and growing demand for water, is leading residents who can afford it to drill boreholes, while others are forced to buy what they need from private water tankers charging exorbitant sums.
Afsar Ali spent 150,000 Pakistani rupees (nearly $1,600) drilling a borehole outside his house in June to supply it with groundwater after the piped water supply almost completely ran out the previous month.
“Previously, I never felt the need (to do this) during two decades of my living here, as there was no tap water shortage in the entire city,” the 61-year-old said.
Batool’s husband Bilawal Khan said he complained about the shortage to the Capital Development Authority, but the tanker it sent in response came at night and could not reach his house because of cars parked in the street.
Islamabad, situated in the scenic Margalla Hills in the country’s north-west, once received abundant rain throughout the year. For the past 10 to 12 years, however, rainfall has declined, although until now the resultant water shortages affected mostly poor and middle-income neighbourhoods.
But with too little rain to adequately recharge the underground aquifers and the large reservoirs that provide water for the city and nearby areas, the water shortage is for the first time affecting even upscale areas.
Temperatures, which until about a decade ago rarely soared beyond 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), now reach as high as 48C (118F), causing demand for water to skyrocket.
“Rising temperature during summer days is a major cause of why water shortages have become routine for the last few years,” said Ghulam Rasul, chief weather scientist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department.
He added that local factors such as the doubling of Islamabad’s population since 1998 to 1.7 million, the increased numbers of vehicles, and excessive tree-felling have also contributed to the change in the local climate.
SUPPLY DRAMATICALLY DOWN
Islamabad and its adjoining areas including Rawalpindi need 198 million gallons of water daily, but only about 27 million gallons are currently being supplied, according to the Capital Development Authority (CDA).
The Simly, Rawal and Khanpur dams, located between 25 and 40 km (16 and 25 miles) from Islamabad, are holding too little water to maintain an adequate supply to the metropolitan area.
Asim Saeed, executive engineer of the Khanpur dam, said that water flow to Islamabad and the vicinity is down to less than a third of the previously normal volume.
“If the present situation persists for a few more days the dam will go completely dry,” Saeed said, blaming unusually poor rainfall in the catchment area over the past several months for the falling water levels.
Ramzan Sajid, a CDA spokesperson, said that the agency was receiving over 1,000 complaints of water shortages from residential sectors every day.
“With all rain-fed reservoirs that provide the city with water at their (lowest) levels, nothing can be done to offset the severe water shortage,” Sajid said. “We can only wait for the rain that can help improve the situation.”
Underground water is becoming harder to access as well.
“Only 10 years ago water could be found 50 to 100 feet deep in most of the capital city, said Abdul Hafeez, the Pakistan representative of WaterAid, an international nongovernmental organisation. “But today, people have to bore 250 to 300 feet down to extract water,” he said.
Allowing people to dig for water on their own is a serious mistake on the part of Islamabad’s civic authorities, according to Hafeez, because it speeds up the depletion of the aquifers.
Hafeez believes that the solution to the burgeoning water shortage lies primarily in rainwater harvesting and in campaigns to raise awareness about water conservation.
Many residents traditionally wash their sidewalks and cars each day, sending water flooding down the city’s streets. Changing people’s attitudes and traditions will not be easy, Hafeez said.
“The government should make legislation against such wasteful behaviours and make a national rainwater harvesting policy,” he said. Such a policy should require rainwater harvesting systems for every household in Islamabad and in parts of the country with adequate rainfall, he explained.
Hafeez also recommended that each household with boreholes be taxed and the revenue used to fund awareness-raising campaigns and water conservation projects.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan.