Climate Change Implications on Water Resources of Pakistan

By  Ms. Mehwish Burki , CGSS Ambassador (Islamabad), Center for Global & Strategic Studies (CGSS), Islamabad

Published on 9th March 2020

Pakistan, a country based on agrarian economy and a continental climate, today faces climate change as its biggest non-traditional threat. It is a center of one of the largest river basins i.e. the Indus system and is blessed with three tremendous mountain ranges which are home to more than 7000 glaciers. Unfortunately, its water resources are a direct victim of climate change. Pakistan, although, contributes less to global

warming but bears its adverse effects immensely. According to Global climate risk index 2020, Pakistan ranks at 5th position among the countries badly affected by climate change from 1999 to 2018 which manifests its perilous condition. A country that was once considered water abundant is today being termed as water-stressed. Pakistan’s rapidly increasing population and its water-dependent economy are further exacerbating its vulnerabilities. The water resources of Pakistan that comprise of surface water and groundwater have been badly affected by the climate change in terms of availability, quality and flow patterns. The biggest contributor to the surface water is the northern glaciers acting as natural reservoirs. The Karakorum, Himalayas and Hindu Kush ranges have glaciers that fill up and regulate the hydrologic regime of Indus River and its tributaries. Both the western and the eastern tributaries of River Indus provide the bulk of water required for irrigation and power generation. Although Pakistan has glaciers more than all other regions except the Polar Regions the rapidly increasing temperatures have resulted in rapid glacier melting and ultimately their retreat. According to researchers of Columbia University, since the beginning of this century, half a meter of ice have been lost by the Himalayas. It has been estimated that the Hindu Kush Himalaya region could lose half of the glaciers due to a two degree rise

in temperature which would ultimately disrupt the river systems in Asia. This melting of glaciers is causing increased water flow in rivers which has resulted in intensive and frequent episodes of floods but in the long run, the rapidly receding glaciers would result in decreased river flows.

Another major problem associated with the increasing temperatures is the formation of glacial lakes caused by rapid melting of glaciers, which brings with itself the risk of glacial lake outburst flooding. According to the United Nations Development Program, 3,044 glacial lakes have developed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan. Out of these, 33 are said to be predisposed to GLOF. Such hazardous flooding damages the livelihoods in the nearby areas and threatens the lives of people in the downstream settlements. In 2018, just like the creation of Attabad Lake in GB due to climate change in the year 2010, another artificial lake has been formed in GB out of a village due to melting of a small glacier in Ishkoman Valley submerging around 40 homes and destroying crops. Climate change is also causing rapid sea-level rise. It is because of increasing heat waves of oceans and unfreezing glaciers and ice sheets. The region of Asia is most

badly affected where an annual rise of 1 to 3 mm in the sea level is observed. Pakistan has a 1050 km long coastal line that faces the risks associated with sea-level rise. This precarious state of affairs is already impacting the economic hub: Karachi. An annual 2.2 mm rise in sea level has been recorded from 1906 to 2016 at Karachi. According to a report, if the climate change continues to remain uncontrolled, Karachi might get immersed into the Arabian Sea in the coming decades. Areas like Keti Bandar have already turned into swamps due to the sea intrusion. The second major source of surface water is rainfall. Rainfall in summer is mainly a result of monsoon while the western depression causes light rainfall in the winter season. Climate change has brought significant changes in the occurrence and intensity of rainfall, especially in the monsoon season. They have become erratic and intense. According to a report, monsoon rain has increased by 18 percent from 1961 to 2018. In 2019, heavy monsoon rainfall caused land sliding and floods in different regions of the country leading to deaths of several people and damage to infrastructure. Moreover, time variations in their occurrence have also been observed. In 2018, monsoon did not start on time due to which Tarbela Dam which is one of the largest earth-filled dams in the world, reached its lowest point ever recorded

Another major water resource is groundwater which not only contributes to fulfilling the domestic and industrial needs of the country but also compensates the shortfall of surface water in agriculture. According to 2015 report of National Groundwater Association (USA), Pakistan ranks 4th among the countries consuming groundwater and hence is one of the biggest groundwater consumers. Keeping massive consumption aside, climate change is a big influencer of this freshwater resource as it not only affects its quantity but also the quality. Saltwater intrusion caused by Sea level rise has increased the salinity of the coastal aquifers. Moreover, climate change, by influencing the precipitation patterns and amounts, is affecting the groundwater level. Pakistan’s increasing dependence on groundwater has made it more susceptible to the dangers associated with the declining underground table. In a session conducted at Lahore in collaboration with World Wide Fund (WWF) and Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), experts said that a rate of 2.5 to 3 feet per year decline in groundwater level is taking place in Lahore. The climate change by making surface water flows irregular and therefore unreliable has made the population depend more on groundwater. In this way, it has amplified the risks of diminishing groundwater. During the last few decades, Pakistan’s annual mean temperature increased by 0.5 degree Celsius. This change has been accompanied by drastic weather events,

economic and human loses and debilitating water resources. Being the 6th most populous country with increasing water demands, climate change is an imminent danger. The annual per capita water availability has reached a low level of less than 1000 cubic meters from more than 5000 cubic meters in 1951. Realizing the intensity of the consequences associated with climate change, Pakistan adopted a national climate change policy in 2012 that focused on mitigation as well as adaptation measures. It also committed itself to a global climate change control regime by joining the 2015 Paris agreement. However, for a developing country like Pakistan, it is difficult to take concrete steps for controlling climate change without International funding. Highlighting the capacity building limitations of developing countries to climate change, Prime Minister Imran Khan said in his speech at the recent United Nations General Assembly session, “We have so many ideas but ideas without funding are mere hallucinations”. It is need of the hour for the developed countries to step in and help the developing countries in coping with the incumbent environmental threat. There are various measures that Pakistan can take to deal with the water crisis that is the direct consequence of Climate change. The foremost step that needs to be taken is to build dams to save floodwater and meet the increasing water demand. Pakistan has already approved Diamer Basha and Mohmand dams but due to lack of finances, it would take a few years in construction. Pakistan being water-intensive uses flood irrigation methods in agriculture. Moreover, there are no proper water pricing and well-defined water rights which lead to excessive use of water. To Control all this, Pakistan should introduce modern irrigation techniques like drip irrigation and develop a proper regulatory mechanism to prevent wastage of water. Moreover, mass awareness regarding climate change and water conservation must be spread through education and campaigns. Although Pakistan has for the first time launched the national water policy in 2018, but without rigorous implementation and strong governance, no positive results could be expected. So, it is time for the government as well as the population to put efforts in controlling climate change and promoting water conservation.