Water in Lahore

Water is a web of life which supports life on Earth. It covers 71% of the planet’s surface in the form of oceans, seas, rivers, glaciers, ice caps, wetlands and in the form of other water bodies. For human beings, it is an essential part of our survival but even today, it’s not easily available as almost one billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water.

Throughout history, Islam has promoted water conservation so that this precious resource can be available for all, present and future generations. Our Holy Prophet (PBUH) discouraged the wastage of water even during ablution (wuzu). When he saw a person wasting water while performing ablution, he said:

‘Don’t be extravagant’

This simple example, one of many, highlights that we should use water responsibly.

Pakistan is blessed with major rivers and a huge network of canals to support agriculture but due to unsustainable consumption patterns, industrial pollution and over-abstraction of groundwater, the situation is deteriorating rapidly. Less water availability from canals and erratic weather patterns have forced farmers to pump groundwater leading to a declining water table.

It is highly unfortunate that tap water is not suitable for drinking and due to lack of awareness, more than three million Pakistanis are affected from waterborne diseases annually and out of them 1.2 million die as a result. Children are the most susceptible to such diseases and almost 250,000 children die from diarrhea and other diseases.

With the passage of time, the quality and quantity of water is getting affected as rainfall patterns have become unpredictable; groundwater supplies are being exhausted and turning saline, and industrial effluents are being discharged into the main streams without being recycled.

Water Pollution in Lahore
Industrial effluents polluting water bodies, Source: WWF-Pakistan

A 2007 report by WWF-Pakistan titled Pakistan’s Waters at Risk revealed that less than one per cent of wastewater is treated by industries thus affecting aquatic life and quality of water.

Pakistan: A Water Stressed Country

Per capita water availability in Pakistan has decreased from 5,260 m3 in the year 1951 to 960 m3 in the year 2010, thus placing Pakistan in the category of highly water stressed countries of the world. According to the 2010 Water Security Risk Index, Pakistan is ranked at seventh position among the top ten water insecure countries of the world. However, on the other side there are annual floods devastating the entire country. Experts say that water scenario in Pakistan is getting worse due to climate change, unawareness and mismanagement.

Indus Basin Aquifer – Second Most Overstressed in the World

The figures on Pakistan’s water situation are alarming but more alarming are the two latest studies led by the University of California, Irvine (UCI), using data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites. They rank the Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan as the second-most overstressed in the world. According to the studies, heavy reliance on groundwater is depleting the Indus Basin aquifer and also leading to significant ecological damage, including drying rivers and wetlands, deteriorating water quality and increasing salinity.

WWF’s Living Planet Report

Off course the increasing global population is exerting pressure on existing natural resources, which is further confirmed by WWF’s Living Planet Report 2014. The report states that our demand on Earth is 50 per cent more than what nature can renew, thus revealing that it will take 1.5 Earths to produce the resources necessary to support our current environmental footprint.

World Overshoot Day that occurred on August 13 this year also highlighted that humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what the Earth can regenerate in that year. This means that in less than eight months, we have consumed all the Earth’s natural resources which it is able to produce in a year. So for the rest of 2015 we will be living on resources taken from future generations!

We are currently experiencing water shortages, desertification, soil erosion, reduced cropland productivity, overgrazing, deforestation, rapid species extinction, fisheries collapse and increased carbon concentration in the atmosphere.

Pakistan’s population has crossed the 180 million threshold, making it the sixth most populous country of the world today, and is exerting tremendous pressure on its natural resources. Water especially is a major issue as the quality and quantity of the resource is greatly affected due to human-led activities. The water situation of urban areas is worsening due to over-abstraction of groundwater; even Lahore is suffering from acute water shortage and deteriorating water quality.

Lahore Water Situation

A report produced by WWF-Pakistan in 2014 titled Situation Analysis of the Water Resources of Lahore: Establishing a case for Water Stewardship highlighted the deterioration and declining levels of water supplies of Lahore. The report, published by WWF-Pakistan’s European Union (EU) funded project titled City-wide Partnership for Sustainable Water Use and Water Stewardship in SMEs in Lahore warns of water shortfalls in the city partially due to the population explosion. According to the report, the population of Lahore is expected to increase to 22 million by 2025, out of which 84 per cent are expected to live in urban areas, thus fueling the worsening water crisis.

Over-abstracting of groundwater has a darker side – tube wells which extract water from the underground aquifer from a depth of 120-200 metres (m) for agricultural purposes are rapidly exhausting the groundwater supply of the city. According to an estimate there are more than 10,000 tubewells and their numbers are increasing with every passing day. However, Lahore receives an annual rainfall of up to 715 mm, which does not contribute greatly in recharging the aquifer (as groundwater discharge is much higher).

While commenting on the report Hammad Naqi Khan, Director General, WWF-Pakistan said, ‘Pakistan faces serious water challenges and the situation is deteriorating with every passing day. This report highlights the poor management of Lahore’s water resources. Our consumption patterns are highly unsustainable as we are not only depleting the groundwater supply but also contaminating the Ravi River whose water seeps into the ground and pollutes the groundwater. In order to solve the water crisis of Lahore, there’s a dire need for public-private partnerships so that immediate actions can be taken before it’s too late.’

Recently, WWF-Pakistan and Coca-Cola Beverages Pakistan Limited (CCBPL) initiated a new project, Paani, through which 15 water filtration plants will be installed in low-lying areas of Lahore with little or no access to safe drinking water. While examining the water quality of various areas, it was revealed that people in many parts of the city are drinking heavily polluted water which is harmful for human health.  The first few water filtration plants were installed in Peer Saidan Shah Darbar, Basti Saidan Shah, Upper Mall, where arsenic levels were higher than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) permissible limits. According to chemical analysis report produced by Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), arsenic was found to be 23.84 (mg/l), while it should not be more than 10 according to the WHO.

Water sampling was also carried out in Lady Wellington Hospital, where arsenic was found to be above 10 (mg/l), at 26.89 (mg/l).

Another serious issue was reported in Haloki, Kahna, Ferozepur road where water samples taken from Jamiya Mosque Haloki, Anwar-e-Madina, Lahore revealed that apart from an arsenic (mg/l) level of 20.31, total coliform (MPN/100ml) and fecal coliform (E.Coli) (MPN/100ml) were found to be at values of 15 and 12 respectively, which should be zero, as prescribed by the WHO. These alarming statistics show that the sewage water infested with human waste is getting mixed with damaged water pipes, thus leading to waterborne diseases among people.

This is not all as Lahore’s groundwater supply is becoming extensively contaminated due to industrial effluents being discharged into water bodies without proper treatment. Water intensive industries such as textile, tanneries, paper and pulp are the major polluters of water resources.

The Dying River

The Ravi River plays a major role in replenishing Lahore’s groundwater by up to 82 per cent but due to mass contamination of the river, polluted water seeps down and deteriorates groundwater, making it unfit for drinking, affecting soil fertility and even crop patterns.

Water Level Ravi River
Source: WWF Pakistan

The river’s water has metallic components in it which has seriously affected aquatic life but local communities are ignorant about this, and they continue to consume its fish catch which is causing various health problems in them. Moreover, farmers use the polluted water to cultivate vegetables, which increases crop size but deteriorates the quality of the produce.

Tubewell in Lahore
Farmers using polluted water to cultivate vegetables. Source: WWF Pakistan

Over-abstraction of Lahore’s aquifer is rapidly pushing the depth of the water table down by approximately 0.55 m (1.5 ft) per annum. If the water supply keeps on declining and is further polluted, the Water and Sanitation Agency’s (WASA) will not be able to supply safe drinking water to more than 10 million households through 484 tube wells, which will be a major health hazard.

The people of this city use water indiscriminately while being completely unaware of the fact that the probability of acute water shortages occurring in the near future is very high. To deal with this scenario, there needs to be a municipal water act, water-right law and recharge policy so that water can be used responsibly and usage fees can be levied on private housing schemes and industry, whose water consumption exceeds safe limits so that people can realize its importance.

On the other hand, if we keep extracting groundwater beyond safe limits, the water table will decrease so much that it will become saline and unfit for consumption, the same way it has become unfit in many parts of southern Punjab. Moreover, a decline in groundwater levels will force WASA to use more electricity to pump water from greater depths, thus increasing the authority’s electricity bills and becoming a burden on the provincial budget.

Declining Water Levels

Currently the average water level in Lahore is 40 m, which is expected to drop to 70 m by the year 2025 and further to 100 m or more by 2040 if we keep extracting groundwater to fulfill our needs. In future the quality of water can deteriorate to such an extent that businesses will suffer in terms of increased cost and in some cases industries will have to relocate to areas where the water quality is comparatively better.

While commenting on the water situation of Lahore, Col (R) Ejaz Nazim, urban architect and senior Landscape Designer and Environmentalist said, ‘It is upsetting to see that our government is unaware of the ecological impacts of reduced urban forest cover. Increased concrete cover in the shape of underpasses, flyovers, wider roads and housing colonies has severely affected the aquifer recharge in Lahore. Due to increased concrete, rainwater rather than seeping into the sub-soil goes down the drain which is a huge loss not just to the ecosystem but for humans also.’

Solutions to End Water Crisis in Lahore

Responsible Consumption

The only solution to end the current water crisis is by promoting responsible use of the resource and consuming it with care. Since boreholes and tube wells are the major reasons for the decline in the water table, the government can begin by banning them; defining limits for water withdrawal and urging citizens, corporates and the industrial sector to adhere to them as well as imposing groundwater extraction fees.

Recharging Groundwater

Since issues of water quality are linked to the water table, the recharge can be improved by increasing urban forest cover, open spaces, parks and unpaved land in Lahore so that rainwater is able to seep into the soil and add to the aquifer.

Rainwater harvesting

This indigenous idea is currently in practice across the world but constantly ignored by us. Rainwater harvesting is useful to reduce the impact of massive urbanization and the government should make it mandatory for every home. Rainwater harvesting is also practiced in the UK, USA, China and other countries as they have realized the importance of this precious resource.

Pakistan’s waters are at risk which can lead to severe implications if an integrated approach to solve the crisis is not adopted. Water is everybody’s business, therefore everyone including the media should work together to promote water conservation.

Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, rightly says, ‘To address the many challenges related to water, we must work in a spirit of urgent cooperation, open to new ideas and innovation, and prepared to share the solutions that we all need for a sustainable future. If we do so, we can end poverty, promote global prosperity and well-being, protect the environment and withstand the threat of climate change.’

The writer has an interest in climate change, water, food security and sustainable development. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar

The story was originally published in the August 2015 edition of More Magazine


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