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Pakistan’s Water Insecurity: The Human Cost

  • Sufia Zamir
  • Feb, 2020
  • 197
  • Featured Stories

Better management of the country’s water resources and infrastructure investment are the keys to a water-secure future.

As the recent monsoon rains pelted Karachi, its residents found themselves wading in knee-deep water in their homes and plunged into darkness after the city’s main electricity supplier-K-Electric-proved unable to cope. Outside in the streets, the uncollected carcasses of animals that had recently been slaughtered for the Eid-ul-Adha festival continued to rot, and the muddy streams flowing through the city turned red with blood. A few days later, flash floods in the Malir River-that flows through one of Karachi’s main industrial zones-left commuters stranded for hours on the nearby Korangi Causeway.

The torrential rains follow several years of extreme drought in Sindh and Balochistan. Recurrent droughts in these regions have led to crop failures and livestock losses, devastating the livelihoods of the local population. The resulting food insecurity paved the way for malnutrition and other health conditions that affected over four million people in the two provinces.

These two extreme situations illustrate Pakistan’s vulnerability to water “insecurity” in the form of either too much water or too little. However, the country’s woes are often inaccurately presented as being related to water scarcity alone. Dr. William Young of the World Bank’s Global Water Practice describes Pakistan as “water-rich”, (only 16 countries in the world have more renewable water than Pakistan) and believes that, instead of focusing on water scarcity, the country should strive to improve water security. Thus, Pakistan needs to tackle a number of problems related to overall water insecurity.

The ramifications of unchecked urbanization

A handful of neglected parks are virtually the only vegetation in the concrete jungle that is Karachi. Such over-development can wreak havoc during periods of abnormal rainfall. As a consequence of concrete replacing green belts, it becomes difficult for rainwater to be absorbed into the ground, with the result that the streets remain flooded, sometimes for several days. Sewer lines that fail to handle the load of heavy rain exacerbate the situation.

This is the situation in which Karachi usually finds itself after periods of heavy rainfall. But this year, the city’s problems were worsened by a combination of stagnant rainwater, blood, and animal waste, resulting in one of the worst fly infestations the city had seen in decades. As the flies proliferated in the city, so did disease. Within three weeks, Karachi’s hospitals reported an unprecedented 10,000 cases of diarrhea, gastroenteritis, hepatitis A and E.

Bringing back the mangrove

The fate of Keti Bunder is directly linked with the mangrove forests of the Indus Delta. Located 150 kilometers from Karachi, Keti Bunder was once a thriving farming village. But as seawater gradually took over agricultural land, the farming community turned its attention to fishing. Today, 90% of the villagers are salt-water fishermen - and Keti Bunder is one of the most underdeveloped and neglected areas in Pakistan. Out of 48 of its settlements, 28 have been completely engulfed by the sea.

To escape the cycle of poverty, many fishermen turned towards Karachi, hoping to continue fishing in the mangrove forests in the various creeks in the city. But they did not fare as well as they had hoped: Karachi’s mangrove forests are being destroyed by the timber and real estate mafias as well as by the pollution from the industrial waste that is dumped in the Korangi Creek. Even though attempts are being made to replant mangroves in the creek, a study by LEAD Pakistan points out that pollution prevents new saplings from flourishing. Due to the chemical waste, the fish in the creek are dying and the people suffering from disease. With their poor education and limited skills, their only other options are to return to Keti Bunder or to live in squalor in one of Karachi’s slums with no other source of income.

However, the story of Keti Bunder is also an example of how a community can reverse its fortunes by addressing its problem of water insecurity. The fishermen are planting more salt-tolerant species of mangroves and new plantations are beginning to sprout around the delta. The community is also working with WWF Pakistan to install wind turbines to provide the town with electricity, while tankers are being arranged to supply clean drinking water. Keti Bunder still has a long way to go before it achieves economic prosperity, but at least it has made a start.

Droughts, floods and plagues

Erratic water supply affects agricultural output, leading to food insecurity, which in turn has deleterious health effects such as malnutrition. Floodin...

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