by Aisha Khan

CEO Mountain & Glacier Protection Organisation

Water discourse has gained prominence in recent years. The main reason for this is its growing scarcity and erratic flow patterns. The quality, quantity and timing are discussed at length, but these deliberations are usually contextualized in the framework of water and its impact on the service sector. The fundamental issues that determine the quality and quantity are either ignored or referenced only to highlight the nexus between water, food and energy.

 Water is a capital asset that supports services that maintain conditions of life. These include provisioning services that have direct inputs into livelihoods and economy; regulatory services like flood and disease control and cultural services. Together, they create ecosystems that support life on Earth.

That makes water the most valued resource on Earth, but despite this, its value has not been determined thus far. As human needs, cities and eco-systems get thirstier as a result of growing population, economic development and climate change, societies around the globe will face the challenge of difficult tradeoffs between uses of water. Many of the Sustainable Development Goals depend on managing water more effectively. It is therefore critical to reach agreement on a set of common principles with the aim of building momentum toward a shared vision for better stewardship of water across sectors, activities and species.

Water comes from two sources: snow/glacial melt and rainfall. Both can be a blessing or a catastrophe, depending on how we manage and harness this natural resource. Surface water is water on the surface of the planet such as in a river, lake, wetland, or ocean. It can be contrasted with groundwater and atmospheric water. Non-saline surface water is replenished by precipitation and by recruitment from ground-water. It is lost through evaporation, seepage into the ground where it becomes ground-water, used by plants for transpiration, and extracted by mankind for agriculture, living, industry, etc, or discharged to the sea where it becomes saline.

Groundwater is the water present beneath the Earth's surface in soil pore spaces and in the fractures of rock formations. A unit of rock or an unconsolidated deposit is called an aquifer when it can yield a usable quantity of water. Groundwater is recharged from, and eventually flows to, the surface naturally. Groundwater is also often withdrawn for agricultural, municipal, and industrial use by constructing and operating extraction wells. The study of the distribution and movement of groundwater is also called groundwater hydrology. Surface and groundwater are two separate entities, so they must be regarded as such. However, there is an ever-increasing need for management of the two as they are part of an interrelated system that is paramount when the demand for water exceeds the available supply.

Groundwater makes up about twenty percent of the world's fresh water supply, which is about 0.61% of the entire world's water, including oceans and permanent ice. Global groundwater storage is roughly equal to the total amount of freshwater stored in the snow and ice pack, including the north and south poles. This makes it an important resource that can act as a natural storage that can buffer against shortages of surface water, as in during times of drought. Groundwater is naturally replenished by surface water from precipitation, streams, and rivers when this recharge reaches the water table.

Groundwater can be a long-term ‘reservoir’ of the natural water cycle (with residence time from days to millennia), as opposed to short-term water reservoirs like the atmosphere and fresh surface water (which have residence time from minutes to years).

Given the lower riparian positioning of Pakistan and high dependence on trans-boundary water flows, the management of water and study of hydrology is extremely important to make informed policy and planning decisions. Unlike most other countries in the region, the geography of Pakistan contains within it many eco-systems. Each is unique and populated with issues that pose a set of diverse socio-economic and environmental challenges. The matter is further complicated by the fact that a significant percentage of water in Pakistan’s major rivers originates from outside its boundaries. When we add the effect of climate change on water behavior including precipitation patterns and recharge capacity, it becomes evident that a “Water Strategy” is the foremost need of the hour.

 As the demand for water increases and supply diminishes, water will become the most sought after commodity. It will be leveraged to extract social, political and economic mileage by nations. Water will dominate global discourse and become a major cause of concern for internal and external security of nations. While there is an urgent need to develop a roadmap with views from all segments of the global water stakeholder community to reach an International Agreement on “Water Rights”, it is equally important to develop a comprehensive “Water Strategy” to deal with this looming crisis at home.

Pakistan’s growing population and shrinking water resource base pose an existentialist threat that can only be ignored at the risk of putting at stake the lives of future generations. These are compelling enough reasons for initiating action to put measures into place to avert a large scale catastrophe in the future. Regional cooperation and creating beneficial dependencies are some of the options that need to be explored as potential approaches to minimize the possibility of “Water Wars”, and the ensuing mayhem. A “Water Crisis” without a strategy to manage it can have very serious consequences for a country with a large young population, ethnic divisions, social grievances, political disaffection and extreme economic disparities.

Trans-boundary Water Sharing Challenges, Internal Water Management Practices and Hydrology constitute the core areas on which delayed action can cause grievous harm to sectors, activities and species. The interview questions in the subsequent interviews have been framed purposefully with the intent of highlighting core issues and providing concrete recommendations for developing an “Integrated Water Strategy” that may help stakeholders reach consensus on way forward. Putting our house in order will also help us to engage in future “Water Talks” from a position of strength and to ensure we are not left high and dry as a nation.