It is a well-known fact that water is the most basic and essential element of life. It covers roughly 2/3rds of the Earth’s surface and almost all living beings, from tiny bacteria to an adult human being, are dependent on it for survival. It may be difficult for people from developed countries to even imagine living a life without proper access to clear water, but many people around the world, such as in various parts of Africa and South Asia, do not have to imagine it, as they live it every day.
Balochistan is the largest, as well as the most arid province of Pakistan, with low annual precipitation (12.96mm), dry weather and mountainous terrain leading to significant lack of greenery and vegetation, and simulating desert-like conditions in the province. These conditions cause significant issues and problems within the province, one of which is difficulty in accessing clean drinkable water.
As of today, Pakistan is considered a “water-stressed” country, but many reports indicate that Pakistan (particularly due to Balochistan) may become a “water-scarce” country. Balochistan’s dry climate causes significant shortages of water, but in the past, its population has always managed to mitigate or remedy this issue in one way or other. During the era of British colonial rule, the British realized the agricultural potential of the province and initiated many infrastructure projects to harness water resources such as building various irrigation canals to redirect the flow of rivers and streams for agricultural purposes (Hakra, Nari and Bolan canals were built to divert river water in the fertile plains of Sibi, Kachhi, and Bolan), improving the Karezes by lining them with concrete and introducing modern techniques for their maintenance and operation, and the development of the Quetta water supply system to meet the water needs of the growing population in the provincial capital, which included reservoirs, pipelines, and storage tanks to ensure a reliable water supply for domestic and military purposes.
However, the water management in Balochistan during the British colonial period focused primarily on meeting the needs of the British Empire.After gaining independence, the water management in Balochistan was largely neglected and did not see any significant development efforts directed towards it, sowing the seeds of crises that would lie dormant until the 21st century. Today, the citizens of Balochistan have started to experience a multitude of complications surrounding the availability of water, such as shortage of water for drinking, sanitation, agriculture and industrial use.It was reported that almost 50% of Balochistan is deprived of safe drinking water and more than half of its land is uncultivable due to water scarcity.
Many issues contribute in kind to the water crisis prevalent in Balochistan today, the most prominent of which is its geographical location. Balochistan receives very little annual rainfalland that too is greatly disproportionate, with some areas receiving 500mm, while others receiving little to no rainfall. No major rivers flow through Balochistan either, as the largest river of Pakistan (the Indus River) flows through all the other provinces, save for Balochistan. The mountainous and rigid terrain further makes it difficult to build proper infrastructure.
The second major cause is the lack of preparedness to receive the rainfall that does arrive. Lack of dams, reservoirs, proper irrigation channels and failure to store rainwater results in cascading floods and devastation, with much of rainwater going to waste as it flows and drains into the ocean, becoming undrinkable.The water management infrastructure in Balochistan is outdate and insufficient to meet the demands of the population as well. The irrigation system suffers from poor maintenance, leakages, and inefficient water distribution networks.
The lack of significant dams and reservoirs, coupled with underdeveloped infrastructure, leads to ineffective and slow response to any flooding and water issues that arise. Another major cause is the abundance of unauthorized tube-wells and water pumps all across the province, particularly in major hubs like the provincial capital Quetta. These tube-well excessively pump out the underground water, which is depleting the underground water reserves at an unprecedented and alarming rate. Climate change also serves as a major cause of water shortages. Rising temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns and prolonged droughts have significantly affected the region’s water availability. Increased evaporation rates and decreased annual rainfall lead to more devastating rainfall when it does arrive, which results in floods and deluge. Lastly, another prominent cause, an issue that is responsible for various other problems as well, is the rapid increase in population. The growing population places additional stress on the already limited water resources, exacerbating the water management crisis. Inadequate planning and urbanization have led to increased demand for water, further straining the available supply.
Shortage of water has many adverse impacts on the society and economy of Balochistan. Repeatedly emphasized is the fact that a significant 50% of Balochistan’s population lacks access to safe drinking water. Additionally, more than half of the region’s land is rapidly transforming into arid deserts due to water scarcity. Consequently, many farmers have been compelled to abandon their fruit orchards, leading to a substantial decrease in the number of orchards in Northern and Central Balochistan, renowned for their apple, grape and other fruit production.
Instead the farmers resort to chopping the trees and selling them as firewood, and turn to rearing livestock to make a living. Women and children have to walk great distances to get drinking water, which affects and lowers their chances of gaining an education or do some other work. Shortage of water further increases urbanization, driving the population from rural areas into major cities where water facilities are more available and accessible, further decreasing the agricultural capacity and increasing the strain on the city’s available resources, resulting in creation of slums and ghettos, where the lack of sanitation due to water crisis propagates various waterborne diseases as well as many other health conditions. These waterborne diseases are further amplified due to rampant water pollution caused by industries and people themselves, with a significant portion of water source being contaminated with bacteria like E.Coli.
The shortage of water also has dire impacts on economic well-being as factories need water for industrial use as well, this leads to a decrease in production, lowering the overall products created and damaging the GDP and economic growth of the country. The agricultural sector is also hit hard as lack of water makes farming and cultivation near impossible, with increasing urbanization further reducing the already meager agriculture. This decreases the amount of crops and products produced locally, decreases imports, which is abysmal for economic growth of any nation.
The Pakistani government has tried many times to remedy this issue, initiating many dams and reservoir construction projects such as the Mirani Dam (completed in 2006) and the GomalZam Dam (completed in 2013), along with various other small dams and reservoirs, but these prove too little too late to solve the water crisis. The first and foremost activity should be to invest heavily in construction of reservoirs and storage facilities to store the rainwater that often arrives in cataclysmic force which would kill two birds with one stone as it would not only store the drinkable rainwater, but also prevent floods and devastation of the local infrastructure.
Another solution would be to construct significant number of desalination plants around the coastal regions of Balochistan. Roughly 70% of Earth is covered with Oceans and Seas, but the water in these water bodies is not drinkable due to high concentration of salt in it. Therefore the ocean water needs to go through a process of desalination to be made drinkable, which requires desalination plants.There already exist a few desalination plants in the province, but many of them are nonoperational and closed down, and the ones that are operational are too few in between to completely cover the needs of the entire province, being able to supply only a few important hubs such as the deep seaport of Gawadar. An average sized desalination plan with a cost of around $10 million would be able to provide 1 million gallons of water per day. A 1.2 MGD and 5 MGD desalination plants are planned to be constructed at the Gawadar port under the CPEC initiative, but even these would not be enough to cover the entire province.
The government can further launch public awareness campaigns to increase the awareness regarding the water scarcity issue with utmost transparency and promote water conservation practices such as rainwater harvesting, water recycling, limit wastage of water and incentivize water-efficient technologies, which can reduce water demand by emphasizing the importance of sustainable water management and creating a culture of responsible water usage. The government can also ameliorate the exhaustion of freshwater in Balochistan by cracking down on illegal tube-wells and filtration plants, most of which are operated by the infamous “Tanker Mafia”.
WASA has around 450-500 functional tube-wells within Quetta city, whilst the tanker mafia is said to have approximately 2000 in and around Quetta city and supply water to 80% of the population according to some sources, due to which the water reserves have come under extreme pressure and underground water reserves have dropped over 800 feet lower. This makes the installation of new filtration plants much more costly whilst simultaneously making older tube-wells obsolete as they no longer have the depth to reach the depleted water levels. The government can solve this problem by seizing the illegal tube-wells and bringing them into their own controlled use, lowering the excessive consumption and depletion of underground water, whilst simultaneously increasing their own assets of tube-wells in Balochistan.
Overall, the water management crisis is a dire challenge not just for Balochistan, but for Pakistan as a whole. Lack of numerous dams, reservoirs, proper irrigation channels and underdeveloped infrastructure coupled with incompetent management free from all accountability and transparency fueled by internal corruption has lead the population of Balochistan towards a path of devastation.
Much of Balochistan’s arable land has undergone a metamorphosis, transforming into a desolate, barren wasteland, with underground water reserves depleting rapidly with each passing day. But hope is not yet lost, as the government may still be able to save the province from the jaws of devastation through rigid and robust policies. The government can do this by creating numerous dams, reservoirs and storage facilities to store rainwater, develop local infrastructure, improve irrigation channels, strengthen institutional structure (inclusion, citizen participation, accountability and transparency), crack-down on illegal filtration plants and water suppliers, and promote a culture of responsible water usage among the population of Balochistan, increasing awareness and emphasis the importance of conservation of water for a better and more greener future.