Earthly matters: Conserving water
Unlike other rivers that are largely dependent on melting snow or rainfall, Pakistan’s main river, the Indus, is very much dependent on glacier melt. Experts say that on average, around 40pc of its water comes from glaciers melting in the summer, in the high mountains of the Hindu Kush, Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges. With increasingly warmer temperatures due to climate change, the glacier melt is going to decrease in the future (as the glaciers lose their mass of accumulated ice). In the near future, we should expect a major increase in summer floods but then what does the long-term future hold for us in this region, especially those who completely depend on the Indus for their water needs?
Journalists from China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India met in Kathmandu to discuss challenges facing the Indus at a media dialogue organised by the Third Pole Network, in collaboration with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The meeting point was in Nepal because of visa issues between India and Pakistan, the two countries that predominantly share the Indus waters.
The ultimate source of the Indus is in Tibet (now in China); then it flows northwest through Ladakh (in India) and Baltistan into Gilgit, just south of the Karakoram Range. The Shyok, Shigar and Gilgit rivers carry glacial waters into the main river, which then flows to the south, emerging from the hills between Peshawar and Rawalpindi and then going further down to the plains of the Punjab and Sindh and out to the Indus Delta and the Arabian Sea. Much of the river runs through Pakistan and according to the Indus Water Treaty, we have access to its water.
According to Arun Shrestha of the Integrated Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which is based in Kathmandu, “There has been a 20pc to 30pc area loss in glaciers in the region and the Indus will lose more ice in the future”. This is despite the so-called ‘Karakoram Anomaly’ according to which a few glaciers in the Karakoram are advancing; perhaps due to more precipitation at higher altitudes, which is just a guess as there are no weather observatories above 5,000 metres. “The knowledge is scanty but a lot of research is going on,” pointed out Shrestha, a senior climate change specialist. ICIMOD is helping to set up an Upper Indus Network so that the research is not duplicated and its results can be shared.
However, there is still a long way to go with climate models and more mass balance studies need to be done on large glaciers in this region to find out if they are growing or receding. Currently, less than 10 actual mass balance studies are being conducted, according to Shrestha. Mass balance is simply the gain and loss of ice from the glacier system; glaciers losing more mass than they receive will be in negative mass balance and so will recede. Overall, glaciers in the region are losing their mass due to progressive global warming and then there is the addition of ‘black carbon’ from local sources such as the burning of biomass, diesel fumes and other aerosols that are making them melt faster.
According to Arif Anwar, the IWMI expert based in Lahore who spoke about the state of the Lower Indus Basin, “Pakistan uses 63pc of the water of the Indus and 93pc of this water is used for agriculture … 300 million people live in the Lower Indus Basin and are dependent on this basin”. The irrigation system set up here is the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world and the agriculture done in the Indus Basin contributes to one quarter of Pakistan’s GDP.
However, the bad news is that water per capita is shrinking to a level that is unsustainable. “We are at the limits of our water resources,” pointed out Anwar. “Groundwater has saved Pakistan but that is also threatened by over-extraction and [water scarcity] is going to hit our cities the worst.” Over the past few decades, the water economy of Pakistan has survived largely because of the tapping of groundwater by farmers, villagers, urban dwellers and industries. Groundwater levels are now dropping fast and urgent steps need to be taken to recharge the groundwater.
According to Anwar’s research, Quetta, Peshawar and Lahore are going to face water shortages very soon. In fact, in Quetta the water crisis has already started and it will hit Lahore soon, since it is growing faster than the rest of Pakistan. We are not responding through better management fast enough to the water challenges, considering a growing population that places an increasing demand on water supply. With climate change, land degradation (as farmlands and wetlands are turned into housing) and a business-as-usual approach, we are clearly headed for disaster. “Water is not saved here — as more water becomes available, more land comes under cultivation,” explained Anwar. “We need better water management and more storage in the Indus.”
The Indus is literally the lifeline of the country and we need to be looking at the impacts of climate change on our water resources more seriously. We need to be talking about this challenge at various forums and raising awareness about the impending water crisis in the media, as veteran journalist Joydeep Gupta, the head of the Third Pole Network from India pointed out.
IWMI has been working on solutions that should be brought to the attention of our policy makers, farmers and urban dwellers: developing new storage and improving water infrastructure (repairing barrages and canals), growing more food with less water (using better water conservation technologies) and better managing groundwater resources.