Pakistan’s Water Future

Water is the foundation of every nation in the world. Pakistan’s relationship with water, however, is rather unique. Indus River is the backbone around which the nation revolves and its surrounding area, the Indus Basin, is home to almost all of Pakistan’s population. The entire territory of Pakistan has a very arid climate, with only high-altitude areas being naturally well-irrigated. Most of Pakistan’s water, thus, comes from the rivers that flow down from these mountains, chiefly the Indus and its tributaries. These are oases of water moving through parched lands. In order for civilization to exist in Pakistan’s territories, people have had to spread those huge amounts of water out over a wider area. As a result, the world’s largest irrigation system exists in Pakistan’s Indus Basin.

Rainfall does occur in great amounts over the Indus Basin. However, most of it is for a short period in the summer monsoon season, from June to September. This is a time of the year when the air, which in the rest of the year produces an arid climate by flowing from Pakistan towards the ocean, reverses its course and cloud-bearing winds from the Indian Ocean blanket Pakistan. These clouds pour down an enormous amount of water over Pakistan, whether over the mountains of the northern areas and northwest, the Punjab Basin, or occasionally Sindh. Thus, Pakistan overflows with an abundance of water, often too much to use at once. This all quickly ends, however, and in the meantime, much of the rainwater flows into the Indus. When there are no rains, people can tap into groundwater, which is water from the rains that collects deep underground where the soil lies on top of Earth’s firm surface of solid rock. Groundwater reserves in most of Punjab are huge but in other places, these are not as much because rainwater comes too fast to be absorbed into the ground easily.

The people of the Indus Basin have to find ways to use the rain water as best as they can before the monsoon ends,  followed by a nine-month drought of sorts. Thus, there are reservoirs to store large amounts of water and there are canals, known as non-perennial canals (canals filled all year round are perennial canals) that fill up in times of rain. There are inundation canals that fill up in times of flooding. There are many embankments, such as dams, barrages, and levees which block the flow of water, allowing water to stay where needed. All in all, Pakistan has one of the biggest water management systems in the world.

The Indus Basin is the bulk of the nation but makes up only half of the territory. The rest of Pakistan is basically the fringes of the nation. These areas are sparsely populated and little-developed and often are remote and inaccessible. In the flat areas and even some of the mountainous terrain, very few rivers run through and the soil is very arid. Thus, the main source of water for the people is precipitation, which scarcely comes most of the time. It is during the summer monsoon that most of the rain comes, except in the very outliers of the nation, western Balochistan, FATA, Gilgit-Baltistan, and northern Khyber-Paktunkwha. Outside of the summer monsoon, precipitation comes largely from Western Disturbances, which deliver rain and snow in the winter in large amounts for short periods. With rainwater and meltwater coming in large amounts for short periods of time, the local people have had to develop their own various methods of water management to make do with such a barren environment, such as earthen structures that slow the flow of flowing water so that it is absorbed into the ground and wells.

So in most other countries, most of the water that people need is made available to them naturally. But Pakistan is a country where people have had to get much of the water for themselves. We are a nation that needs to manage water to a particularly high degree, hence having one of the world’s biggest water management systems. This is why World Water Day has enormous significance for us.

The entire water situation in Pakistan that has just been explained is responsible for Pakistan being among the countries facing the greatest water challenges. Problems surrounding freshwater in Pakistan are numerous and severe. There are issues with how much water is available to Pakistanis, what the quality of the water being used is, and what effects flooding and erosion have on land.

As civilization continues its rapid pace of development in the modern era, great changes are being made to the natural environment, with bad consequences for people, and the hydrosphere, the realm of nature consisting of water, is among its most severely affected components. Freshwater in Pakistan is being ravaged by all sorts of human factors both within and without Pakistan. Global climate change will make the monsoon more erratic and melt the snow and glaciers that supply Pakistan with most of its water. Deforestation, especially what is going on in the mountains where the rivers come from, will change the flow of water in the environment and increase erosion. Pollution will increase as development will cause Pakistan’s water supplies to be contaminated. Finally, Pakistan’s high population growth will push water supplies to their limit as more people use more of what water there is and the amount of freshwater in the world is not going to increase along with us.

World Water Day should be a reminder to us of how important water management is to Pakistan as a nation. Water, being the basis (along with other aspects of nature such as soil) of civilization is vital to the existence and well-being of Pakistan. Every Pakistan Day, we are reminded of the importance of our nation and take inspiration in what our nation is capable of being. We get reminded of what is important to Pakistan. But much of what really is important, we ignore. We therefore need to observe World Water Day more closely. In fact, World Water Day is March 22, and Pakistan day is March 23. The commemorations of this two-day period should be merged. On March 22, we Pakistanis should look at the water situation in Pakistan and focus on ways to fix our water challenges and continue to do that the next day, Pakistan Day, which should be a day when, at the same time we look back at the past, we look at where our nation should go from here and focus on ways to make our nation better.

The coming into being of Pakistan, a process which began on March 23, 1940, is of great meaning. We also need to look at where Pakistan is now. Then we look at where Pakistan will be going, which depends on where we take it.

Pakistan cannot be a viable nation unless politicians, policymakers, and citizens pay due attention to the nation’s water. It really underlines all other issues. In our nation’s seventieth year of existence, we need to become more cognizant of what made the existence of our nation possible historically. People were able to bring civilization to this inhospitable land by tapping the otherwise inaccessible sources of water here. This is how things have always been since then but now, things are not going to be the same for Pakistan any longer. We are basically heading into one huge water crisis, a looming disaster for our existence if you will, and Pakistan will find its very survival in jeopardy unless we find ways to stop what is happening, or adapt to it.

The world has continued developing at a breakneck speed and this means that the capacity of the planet to sustain humanity is being pushed to the brink, with earth’s water resources being particularly vulnerable.

In commemorating Pakistan’s history, we usually look at the history that began after August 14, 1947 or even 23 March, 1940. But it is important also that we also look at the entire history of the land that constitutes Pakistan. That provides us largely with a history of water management. Proper study of this past can guide us significantly.

Pakistan’s Indus Basin was one of the great cradles of civilization. Here, four thousand years ago, there developed what is known as the Indus Valley Civilization or Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. It was the foundation of civilization in South Asia. The people of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa are not our ethnic and cultural ancestors very much. The civilization collapsed when people from the west moved into the Indus region and displaced them, creating a new civilization which developed over the millennia and spread across the Indian Subcontinent. From the west, invaders always came to create a new civilization in what is now Pakistan and take it eastwards. Pakistan’s true roots began when Islam spread into South Asia and became the main religion across the northwest of the Subcontinent. This civilization reached its height with the Mughal Empire, which began in the Indus region and ultimately extended over almost all of the Subcontinent. The Mughals and the mighty empire they created can be said to be the predecessor to our nation. The empire lasted for centuries but slowly fell prey to the inevitable tide of European economic and military expansion across the globe and became a British colony, the most important colony of the biggest empire in the world. Here, fittingly, there sprang the world’s biggest independence movement which finally attained its goal in 1947. Thanks to the work of our founder, Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah, the colony split into two nations, of which Pakistan, a homeland for the Muslims of India, gained independence a day before the other.

Behind all of this rich history lies water. How people learned to deal with this one most important resource determined all else that happened in the history of this land. The Indus Valley civilization is particularly noteworthy as it was the pioneer in water management in the Indus Basin. Building an irrigation system in the vicinity of rivers, and based upon flood management, their achievements were many and their experience may have much to teach Pakistan now. Indus irrigation, however, did not take off until the expansion of Muslims into the region, who spread a network of inundation canals as they expanded their rule. The Mughals took this indigenous water management to its height, building more inundation canals. When the British sailed from faraway Europe and took things over, everything changed. They brought an absolute revolution in the management of the Indus Basin, developing water systems to a great degree and instigating many new projects. But all of this was for their benefit and not for that of the locals, so things did not really improve for the land of Pakistan. Indeed, drought and famine became greater hazards than before.

After Pakistan’s independence, we have been accelerating this development. We now have the opportunity to take the know-how and the capability that Western civilization brought to the entire world and use it for the benefit of all Pakistanis. But we must also look back to how things were done in our ancient past, as they may benefit us as well.

The UN assigns a certain theme to every World Water Day. Examples include Water and Disasters (2004), Coping with Water Scarcity (2007), and Why Waste Water? (2017). Every World Water Day, Pakistan should focus on each theme and how it applies to the country. Then, for the whole year afterwards, the nation should work on the issues dealt with by that theme and then switch its focus by the next 22 March to what theme that World Water Day has.

The theme for World Water Day 2018 is Nature for Water. It is all about the idea of working with and using nature in water management. Examples applicable to Pakistan include planting forests to prevent flooding and erosion and restoring wetlands to reduce water pollution. Our freshwater supplies are a part of nature and so it is important to utilize the workings of nature and to behave in a way that accommodates and sustains nature. It could even be the ultimate solution to our water challenges. Therefore, in the wake of this year’s World Water Day, it is time for Pakistan to turn its attention towards natural solutions.

In fact, working and living in harmony with nature may be the path that Pakistan needs to take to ensure its future and to find solutions for all the challenges that lie ahead. For too long, the world has been exploiting nature in a haphazard way, trying to alter nature to fit in with the desires of people. It is becoming apparent more and more that this is not working any longer or is only providing short-term benefits and that we are in fact headed towards environmental catastrophe worldwide. In order to sustain our future, we must sustain the natural environment we live in. Change will also occur, as it is an inevitable part of the world we live in now, but it must be done in a way that maintains the systems that have been operating in nature since time began and carefully using what is there in nature for new things. Now that Pakistan has turned seventy, it is time that we turn our attention towards this path for our future and do all we can to tread it.

When it comes to disaster management, harmony with nature is the best strategy for dealing with natural disasters. A natural disaster simply happens because a natural process, upon interacting with human society, causes great harm to people. The natural process itself is simply a part of nature and is not bad. What we need is to learn how to live alongside the workings of nature without being harmed by them. It may seem a compelling idea to mitigate natural hazards by altering the natural processes themselves, but it often backfires or has drawbacks.

For instance, flood control measures such as building levees around rivers disrupt the buildup of floodplains, decreasing the fertility of the soil and even worsening any flood that manages to break through the levees by preventing floodwaters from depositing sediment that makes the floodplains higher and therefore less likely to be inundated. For a hypothetical scenario, in America, which is famed for its tendency to try to control nature, people have often suggested destroying hazardous hurricanes by detonating hydrogen bombs in them before they make landfall. However, it will not work as even the biggest nukes created by humans are very weak compared to the power of a hurricane and the hurricane will then just become radioactive. Even if people somehow had the capability to get rid of hurricanes, hurricanes transport huge amounts of heat from the tropics towards the higher latitudes. If they were to be stopped, tropical regions would become too hot for people to live there and northern latitudes would become much colder.

Playing around with nature also is making much of the world’s natural hazards much worse. Through our modern activities, we are altering the air, water, and land to a great extent and this is causing natural processes to change to a high degree. The cutting down of trees and the removal of vegetation, deforestation, increasing erosion such as landslides and water erosion which makes floods worse. Trying to fight every single fire that breaks out in a forest causes flammable plant matter to build up, so that the occasional fire that escapes extinguishing can spread through the whole forest. Improper management of farmland has often contributed to drought. The biggest human impact of all is global warming, the warming of the atmosphere by our pumping of various gases into the air. Global warming is postulated to make a huge number of natural hazards more severe, such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, heatwaves (obviously), landslides, epidemics, wildfires, blizzards, and earthquakes. The last two may seem surprising but it goes to show that nature works in very complex ways and that is why any change we make to her can have great consequences out of our control.

That is the crux of the matter. We may have more control over the planet but it makes us cause more things to happen which are out of our control. That is the price we have often paid for shaping nature to our liking and we are now clearly heading into a future where the price is too high to bear. It all comes down to what are the fundamentals of the relationship between humanity and nature. Nature is all that which exists by itself and operates by itself without being created or run by people and we humans exist within nature and everything we need is derived from nature.

A common philosophy that many people followed through history, especially in the West, was the view of nature as an essentially hostile and unreliable force. The thinking goes that the natural world we live in abides by its own whims and not ours at all. It therefore keeps us in danger by treading on us whenever it wants and does not readily provide us with all that is of benefit to us. Whether it is the other living things we inhabit  the environment with, with which we are in endless strife and struggle, or the environment itself, which exists in complete indifference to us, we live in a tough world, a world of storms and starvation, in which we had to look to ourselves to survive. And in order for humanity to thrive and to prosper, to make the conditions of our life better, we have to alter the world, to basically take it apart and reassemble it to create all that is good for us.

To some extent, this is true. But it is not the whole picture. The world may not be made to accommodate us, but we are made to accommodate the world. We are adapted to the natural conditions. Furthermore, nature is a very powerful force. The way it is already is a world which we can live in and while humanity is becoming increasingly a powerful force, nature is still way above us. It will respond to our influence the way it wants and will never be fully tamed by us. Nature is powerful and the natural environment, which is to say the balance that nature maintains for our benefit, is at the same time fragile. Our world is vast and dynamic and we people are an entity wielding little power in the face of it. It is best that we get the world to help us and help it at the same time, rather than making futile attempts to subdue it. It is what will take us far.

Nature is divided into two basic kinds, the abiotic and the biotic. The abiotic is what exists and operates by random processes. It has no purpose of its own except to abide by physical laws and things are the way they are. It is the earth, the water, and the air. It is what makes up the bulk of the world. The biotic, which exists within the context of the abiotic, is the living world, all the living things which exist for the purpose of providing for and expanding their existence, which actively work towards that end.

The abiotic contains immense power. It is basically almost everything that there is and so its forms and its forces both are largely immune to being shaped by us how we want and can be of immense use to us if we only learn how to harness them properly. Though they do not exist for any particular purpose, the flow of a river is a monumental force and a mountain is a monumental form and both can benefit us greatly if we accommodate ourselves to them.

The biotic, though being of a lesser scale, has shaped the abiotic to an enormous degree with the result of making the world habitable for living beings like humans. The sum of other living things also is a massive realm compared to what people have created and living things are shaped to perfection in all that they can do. You can understand that if you compare the very hands that people have, which is part of the living world, with what those hands have created. The hands have a finesse that is lacked by all that is artificial. The living world offers up an endless variety of other incredibly marvelous forms which are made to be as capable as possible and be adapted to live with the natural conditions of the world. Compare a bird with a plane, a whale with a ship, and a tree with a tower. The plane, the ship, and the tower are much mightier by the plain outlook. But by examining carefully, you can see that there is so much that the bird, the whale, and the tree have which our artificial creations lack, much that ultimately will make them win out in terms of what is sustainable for the world.

When it comes to disasters, there are countless ways nature can lessen hazardous events or protect us from them. One of the main aspects of nature which can keep us safe is vegetation. Plants, from the moss that carpets dirt to trees that tower above us high into the air, are the building blocks of most environments and create a suitable space for people to live in. Plant roots hold soil firmly in place, thus preventing landslides, and landslides do not travel far when tree are in the way. Plants absorb great amounts of water and so keep flooding down. Mangrove forests and coastal wetlands block storm surges and tsunamis. Trees protect us from heatwaves by providing us with shade and cooling the air through transpiration.

Blind abiotic processes also protect us in many ways. Consider that the constant action of waves at coastlines build up sand dunes which protect us from the huge, dangerous waves which strike whenever a hurricane is passing over or an earthquake rumbles in the ocean. Then there is the other erosion process, already mentioned, in which floods suppress the capacity of future floods by depositing sediment that raises floodplains.

Some of the biggest hazards that afflict humanity come from tiny animals such as the mosquitoes that transmit deadly diseases causing epidemics and the locusts that devour vast tracts of grain crops causing famines. While we try to get rid of such dangerous critters by pouring chemicals that we create into the environment to kill them, which often cause great environmental harm, we are better off turning to the natural forces that keep their populations down, provided we learn how we can harness them properly, other animals. There are everywhere predators such as birds, frogs, spiders, dragonflies, and bats which are made for going after insects and killing as many of them as possible, which works better than creating some chemicals with indiscriminate effects and randomly pouring them into the environment, where we do not know where they will go. By carefully controlling ecological conditions, we can make wild predators eat more of the pestilent insects so they are mostly wiped out.

By turning to nature, we can not only stay safe from such calamities and many others, we can improve things generally for our nation. That is important for ensuring that Pakistan has a viable future and that we avoid the total calamity we are certainly headed for. Today is Earth Day, 21 April. 2018. Earth Day is a day set aside to commemorate the fact that our existence and our well-being depends on the state of our Earth. It is a perfect time that the national discourse of Pakistan turns towards cooperation with nature. The best way for the Earth to continue sustaining us is for us to sustain it and let it be the way it is.

Now that our nation is seventy years old, this is the direction we must take. Our celebration of seventy years of Pakistan is extensive and prolonged but along with it must come a discourse regarding what we must do for our nation from now on and we must start doing it. We primarily must recognize that Pakistan’s past is different from what the future will be.

Seventy years of our nation’s history has primarily been about political and social issues. An entire era, 1914 to 1991, was continuously a time of massive upheaval all across the world, with people going through events such as World War 1, World War 2, decolonization, and the Cold War. It was in this global environment that Pakistan came into being and in which it spent its first few decades. It was an era where the pressing concern of people and nations across the world was their relationship with other people and nations. Pakistan was no exception, forming because of opposition to British rule and concern over Hindu-Muslim relations and then going through wars with India and the breakaway of East Pakistan, as well as being caught up in the Cold War.

After 1991, everything calmed down and we since then have lived in a world of tranquility. For Pakistan, it can be seen in the limited nature of our final war with India in 1999 (although Pakistan is unfortunately now suffering from one of the greatest upheavals that is occurring in today’s world, events related to the War on Terror). However, due to the rapid development of civilization, in today’s world, people and nations everywhere have a new pressing concern, their relationship with the air, the water, the earth, and all other living things inhabiting the planet with us. This relationship is what is now hitting rock bottom and that is what the future of the world, including Pakistan, is going to be like from now on.

Throughout its seventy years of existence, Pakistan has made it through so much from Partition to the insurgency in the northwest. Now, it is time the nation realizes what it faces from here on, a completely different kind of problem, a severe problem, which will soon became of an existential magnitude. Because the situation is unlike what humanity has had to face before, to make it through our inevitable future and to handle the environmental crises, we need to gain knowledge. We need to study the problems and we need to think up of solutions. We need to find out everything we can about the world we are heading into. Plus, all of us must play our part in handling the problem. Every Pakistani needs to get involved and we need to work closely with all other nations.

Pakistan has survived the upheavals of the past and it is vital that we spring into action and confront the threats to our survival that lie ahead. That is something we must start doing right now.

Author’s bio:

Shahzeb Khan is a journalist and environmental activist. His work has been commended by Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship.  He is the director of Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management. He can be reached at