ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AlertNet) – Islamabad is enjoying abundant water supplies for the first time in a dozen years after record winter rainfall. But experts warn that reforestation and better water management are needed in the long term for the Pakistani capital’s growing population.
Musarat Aftab is exhilarated that after years of water shortages she will no longer have to do without a piped water supply, now that the dam that supplies Islamabad is filling.
The 40-year-old beautician lives in a two-story house in Islamabad’s I-10 residential sector. Since 2006 she has paid at least 2,000 Pakistani rupees a month ($20) to a private firm to get water from a tanker, an amount that often increased to more than 3,000 rupees ($30) in the summer when water consumption is higher.
“If I get piped water this year this will save me 30,000-36,000 rupees,” (about $300-370), a smiling Aftab said.
After heavy winter rains, the 2 million residents of the capital and its suburbs are now set to again receive water from the rain-fed Rawal Dam outside the city. But since 2005 the reservoir has mostly been at less than half its capacity because of a sharp decline in rainfall in the catchment area, said Zafar Hussain, an engineer in the government’s irrigation department.
Islamabad needs 150 million gallons (682 million litres) of water per day, but the piped supply provides only 80 million gallons (360 million litres) or less, particularly when dam levels are low. This has led to a rise in the number of borehole wells drilled by households to supply their domestic water needs. But that rising demand has led groundwater levels to drop.
“By last September, underground water was not available even at a depth of 250 feet (76 metres) in most parts of the capital and adjoining areas,” Hussain said, noting that water a little over a decade ago had been available at a depth of 30 feet (9 metres).
But thanks to heavy rains this winter, the water level at the Rawal Dam had reached 1,746 feet by mid-February, just six feet lower than its total capacity.
“This is the highest level for Rawal Dam during any winter in the last 30 years,” said Hussain. He added that it was the first time in 11 years that the reservoir had been filled to near capacity in winter.
Chaudhry Qamar Zaman, who advises the Pakistani government on climate change affairs, said that more than 250 mm (10 inches) of rain had fallen in Islamabad between October and February – more than the amount recorded during the entire monsoon season of 2012.
According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, the average precipitation over the winter period in Islamabad is usually around 150 mm (4 inches).
Mohammad Hanif, a meteorologist with the department, said that such a powerful winter rain system was rare.
“Not only was it strong but it was also moving very fast, covering a huge area from Afghanistan to north-eastern India,” Hanif said.
“Most of Pakistan, particularly rain-fed areas in northern Pakistan, will not face any water shortage” for agricultural and domestic needs for the rest of the year, said Ghulam Rasul, a senior weather scientist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department.
POPULATION GROWTH A FACTOR
Syed Tahir Shahbaz, chairman of the Capital Development Authority, said that population growth in Islamabad and neighbouring areas, combined with consistently poor rainfall and increasing summer temperatures, had put escalating pressure on aquifers.
“Abundant rains during winter months were common some 10 to 12 years ago, and the temperature never increased beyond 26 degrees Celsius during summer months. But now it reaches up to 46 (degrees) in June,” he said.
“This alarming situation really had made it daunting for us to address water woes of the city and adjoining areas,” Shabaz said.
According to Shabaz, the recent rains have raised the underground water level, which supplies many wells, by more than 50 feet.
Some experts believe that Islamabad’s water woes have been exacerbated by deforestation near the city. That in turn has been driven in part by concerns about poor security in the central, southern and western parts of the country.
The 2011 census showed that the capital’s population had more than doubled from its 1998 level of 800,000.
FORESTS AND RESERVOIRS
Islamabad was once known for the dense forests and lush green mountains to its northwest, but most of the trees now have been chopped down to clear land for residential constructions. Zaman, the climate change adviser, blames this trend for the surge in temperatures and scarce rainfall.
Urban development experts say that Islamabad cannot cope with unpredictable weather patterns and scarce rainfall unless more reservoirs are built to meet the needs of the growing population and deforested areas are reinvigorated.
“With new water reservoirs in scattered areas around the city, more untapped rainwater can be stored to tackle the burgeoning demand,” said Azeem Khoso, an urban planning expert at the Ministry of Climate Change in Islamabad.
Kazim Niaz, a member of the Capital Development Authority’s environment directorate, said the city is planning media and school campaigns to promote water conservation, and is working to fix leaking supply pipes, which cause losses of 22 million gallons per day — nearly one-third of the usual shortfall.
The authority also plans to reforest illegally cleared woodlands within and around Islamabad, in collaboration with the chamber of commerce and local industry.
“Such tree plantation drives will help control temperature and improve rainfall,” Niaz said.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Islamabad.