Navigating the Currents of Pakistan’s Water Debate

The amount of water on our planet has been the same since the beginning of time.  The same water is either in the atmosphere, in clouds and rain; on the surface of the earth in streams, rivers, lakes, oceans, seas; or underground, in the aquifer.  In each of its states along this hydrological cycle, water is thought of, regulated and dealt with differently; gives rise to different attitudes, practices, customs and laws.  But, as the Reader Daanish Mustafa reminds people, when it comes to understanding water, there are only two big questions: where is it and who controls it?

Domestic water – that is, the water we use for drinking and personal purposes – is going through a crisis in Pakistan.  It is a water quality crisis.  The 2007 report of the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources on the water quality situation in Pakistan found some unsafe drinking water in each and every one of the 23 cities in surveyed.  None of water sampled from Bahawalpur, Kasur, Multan, Lahore, Sheikhupura and Ziarat was found safe for drinking purposes.  The water quality crisis in Pakistan is a wholesale violation of the Fundamental Rights to life, a clean and healthy environment and access to clean drinking water.

The inability to provide clean drinking water has serious implications over and above the well-known health and socio-economic affects of impure drinking water.  Throughout history, nations and societies that have been able to provide their people with clean drinking water have demonstrated their superiority.  The Romans had their aqueducts, the post-Revolutionary Parisians their fountains.  When the clean water finishes, so do empires.


In 1800, some 2.5 per cent of global population lived in cities.  By 2009, half the world’s population was urbanized.  This recent ability of cities – the drivers of economic growth – to grow and sustain large populations has hinged on their ability to provide their populations with sanitation: clean water and sewage.  It was the 19th Century Sanitary Revolution – innovations in sewage infrastructure and water-treatment, new discoveries in how disease spread and of medicines to control water-borne disease – that allowed cities to grow healthily and made the Industrial Revolution and the economic rise of the West possible.

It is no longer possible to argue that the imperative of development trumps that of a clean and sanitary environment.  Such a view is ignorant of history as it is well-established there can be no growth or economic development unless and until sanitation is universal.  Simply put, without clean water, there can and will not be meaningful economic development in Pakistan.

Approximately, 60 per cent of Pakistanis get their drinking water from hand or motor pumps (in rural areas, this figure is over 70 per cent). It is estimated that as many as 40 million Pakistanis depend on the supply of irrigation water for their domestic use.  Since there are no waste-treatment plants in operation in the country, nearly half the patients in hospitals today are there because of water-related ailments.  It is difficult to ascribe numbers to the loss of life due to impure drinking water – I was once told that every other murder in Pakistan is over a water-related dispute – but an estimated 2.5 millions Daily Average Life Years are lost annually due to impure drinking water.  And over and above the enormous human cost of impure drinking water, it is estimated that the national economy loses approximately 3.8 per cent of GDP to poor sanitary conditions.

The newly elected Federal and Provincial Governments have inherited a water quality crisis that the previous governments have ignored at their – and our – peril.  It remains to be seen what these present governments do in response to this crisis.  Their response will be one of the keys to the development of the country.

To inform and drive policy on domestic water, there is need for political awareness of and commitment to the issue.  This doesn’t exist at present.  Water is a provincial subject and, after the 18th Amendment, the environment is also provincialized. Federal plans for a National Drinking Water Policy now must be succeeded by initiatives launched by provincial governments.  But three years and a General Election after the 18thAmendment, no provincial government has prepared a policy or plan on domestic water.

The Fundamental Right to access clean drinking water should be the fulcrum on which efforts to address domestic water issues should turn, which reveals two issues of importance: The requirement of access to water; and the requirement that this water be clean. Both requirements play out differently in rural and urban settings.

Access to water resources requires investment in infrastructure to bring potable water to citizens. The provision of clean water requires investment in sewage treatment technologies.  Both require political commitment as well as a change in the hydro-social contract – the very foundation on which government responds to the domestic water needs of the people.

Political commitment is crucial as without it, the monies required to pay for new sewage infrastructure will not be forthcoming.  It will also be necessary in order to ensure that metered connections can be introduced across the board.  Without metered connections, the important step of raising and enforcing water tariffs cannot be taken.  It has been demonstrated that wasteful water consumption is promoted by low tariffs, and higher tariffs cannot be properly enforced without an accurate metering system that allows water utilities to accurately charge for usage.  The current system of fixing domestic water rates to the annual rental value of properties is not enough to meet the challenges of providing access to drinking water.

A debate on the price of water is crucially important.  As clean drinking water becomes increasingly scarce, the lack of public-sector commitment has opened a door for private commercial interests to exploit the market for domestic water.  These interests have established a discourse on water where the ability of the poor to pay for water is not properly addressed.  Unless and until an alternative government policy or civil society discourse on access to drinking water is developed, we remain under threat of having the entire domestic water discourse lost to private commercial interests.

Water utilities, already under stress because of rapid urbanization and low O&M budgets, will have to adapt the manner in which they perform their duties.  It is no longer enough to receive grants from the provincial government when recoveries scarcely pay for salaries.  The future domestic water challenges cannot be met by utilities running in deficit.  Water utilities, in order to deal with increasing scarcity, will have to learn to identify and exploit a spectrum of water resources from rain water, groundwater, storm water run-off to recycled water in order to increase resilience against shortages.  They will have to learn to apply decentralized, small-scale and often independent sewage treatment facilities rather than opting, as they do today, for expensive centralized, single-solution treatment plants.  Such a change in approach towards water-sensitive urban planning will require local governments and water utilities to operate in a decentralized or poly-centric manner.  It will place a premium on flexible and tailor-made solutions adaptable to individual communities.  And they will still have to continue to deal with the capacity problems they are facing today.

In conclusion, a broad range of recommendations can be adopted. Political attention needs to be focused on drinking water and sanitation issues, and measures must be taken to understand the different scales of water by including a wide cross-section of stakeholders in decision and policy-making. Moreover, it is imperative that Local government legislation provide for decentralized operation of water-utilities with power to levy and collect tariffs, and that Provincial Governments explore the possibility of creating an independent drinking water regulator to fix tariffs in a uniform manner.

Furthermore, legislation restricting water usage should be enacted and the enforcement delegated to local governments, while drinking water tariffs should be revised to allow water utilities to recover, O&M costs and ultimately prevent environmental harm. Finally, investments must be made in the administrative infrastructure of water utilities, with a focus on sustainable urban water management in order to enhance capacity and to ensure utilities can meet their responsibilities.

The challenge is daunting and the stakes are high.  The health of Pakistanis and their ability to lead healthy productive lives is at stake.  But the opportunities are also immense.  If drinking water policy can be got right, there is nothing standing in the way of Pakistan’s development.