Pakistan’s Water: A Political-Economy Perspective


Pakistan receives average rainfall of not more than 250mm per year, making it one of the most arid and most water-stressed countries on the planet. A 2016 WaterAid report estimates Pakistan’s annual water availability at 1,017 cubic meters per person, compared to 5,000 cubic meters per person in 1950. If current trends continue, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources warns, Pakistan will find itself at absolute water scarcity by 2025.

At the same time, the country is beset by water-management challenges, including limited storage capacity, inefficient and inequitable agricultural distribution systems, groundwater depletion and contamination, low water tariffs, poor infrastructure maintenance, and more, that pose an urgent threat to Pakistan’s future prosperity and environmental sustainability.

The country is heavily dependent for its water needs on a single source, the Indus River Basin, roughly 100 million hectares covering parts of Afghanistan, China, India, and Pakistan. The Basin is currently experiencing dramatic water-flow fluctuations—often resulting in flash flooding—due to a combination of melting Himalayan glaciers and intense precipitation, both consequences of global warming. Current estimates suggest that these erratic water flows will continue for the next several decades, until the glaciers have melted completely, at which time the country will face a permanent, terrifying, 30–40 percent drop in river flows, leading to prolonged dry spells and the potential devastation of agricultural food sources.

Although Pakistan uses nearly 93 percent of its Indus Basin water for agriculture, nearly two-thirds of this water is lost due to poor transmission and seepage in the Indus Basin Irrigation System, the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system. This threatens the productivity and sustainability of key sectors including agriculture, fisheries, energy, transportation, and industry. The Basin also suffers from large-scale pollution by agricultural pesticides and fertilizers and industrial waste from large cities.

These challenges persist under an umbrella of inefficient governance and politically vested interests such as large farmer associations, and they are exacerbated by a steadily rising population and climate change. Improving cooperative management of the waters of the Indus Basin entails understanding this context, the political and economic incentives faced by all stakeholders.

In the Indus Basin, the absence of legislation recognizing lower riparian uses of surface and groundwater has led to international, interprovincial, and local inequities. Transboundary issues between Pakistan and India reduce water availability for agriculture, affecting crops dependent on the Indus Basin Irrigation System. Lack of consensus on the enforcement of water rights laid out in the Water Accord of 1991 also creates mistrust between provinces. Inconsistencies in local ecology and hydrology regimes, and water pollution in rivers and canals, are degrading fertile land and ecosystems. For example, the aquifers of the Ravi and Sutlej Rivers are depleting at alarming rates, and now act as sewage channels. Some of this is due to the Indus Waters Treaty, combined with lower recharge rates and increased pumping for domestic water use.

There are significant inequities between small and big farmers—the latter, together with irrigation officials, forming the axis of power in irrigated agriculture. Studies have revealed widespread ignorance of best practices among small farmers, primarily due to the lack of extension services, a responsibility of provincial agriculture/irrigation departments, whose outreach is limited by lack of funds and incentives to serve large landowners only. Big farmers (with over 25 acres of land) take water directly from the river and use their political influence to secure an uninterrupted supply. In Rajanpur, shortage of water is rarely a problem for big farmers, who draw water directly from the canal. In Sindh, politically influential farmers of Mirpur Khas have thousands of acres of land spread around two or three branch canals, which mostly irrigate their own land. Water theft is common in irrigated areas, practiced mostly by influential farmers at the headwaters of canals and distributaries. It is estimated that about 59 percent of irrigation water is misappropriated before reaching the fields.

As part of the Institutional Reforms in Water Management program, farmers organizations (FOs) were developed around canals, and water-users associations were established along watercourses. Smallholder farmers in both Punjab and Sindh complain that, instead of improving governance, these reforms have further complicated the situation for smallholders. In Bahawalnagar, influential farmers got elected to the FOs, furthering their own water theft. Smallholder farmers claim that, before institutional reforms, they could adjust the size of their mogha (water outlet) by paying PKR 15,000 to irrigation officials. Now, they say, influential farmers on the FOs demand around PKR 120,000 for the same work. Similar repercussions have been observed in Sindh province. It is very difficult for smallholder farmers to approach FOs dominated by large farmers to resolve their issues. This leads to higher rural-to-urban migration, as small farmers sell their land and move to cities. Ironically, once the land is acquired by a big farmer, the irrigation water starts flowing.

The price of water, otherwise known as Abiana, should reflect supply and demand: if water becomes scarce, the cost should go up. The system would be economically efficient, because it would help pay for irrigation infrastructure while encouraging conservation. In Pakistan, however, the Abiana rates bear no relation to the amount of water consumed. The government of Punjab, for example, charges a flat rate of PKR 85 per acre for Kharif (summer) crops and PKR 50 per acre for Rabi (winter) crops. This imposes no costs for excessive water use, or for crops that may be thirstier than others. Rice and cotton, for instance, are charged PKR 85 per acre, even though rice requires 60 percent more water than cotton. Insulating users from the true cost of water creates distorted incentives, discouraging the adoption of technologies like drip irrigation, which conserves water and labor, reduces soil erosion, and leads to greater productivity.

Abiana also faces recovery issues—collections are always lower than assessments. These fees are critical for the maintenance and repair (M&R) of irrigation infrastructure, but the assessed Abiana typically only provides a fraction of the required resources, and the actual amount recovered can be even smaller. In Punjab, for instance, the 2016/17 M&R budget was PKR 6.6 billion, the Abiana assessment was just PKR 1.6 billion, and recovery was a paltry PKR 0.9 billion, less than 15 percent of the M&R budget.

Pakistan urgently needs to replace flat-rate fees with a structure that reflects the varying water needs of various crops. International efforts have seen favorable results from tiered pricing, in which users are charged higher rates for each successive unit of water, discouraging overuse. In the U.S. state of Arizona, for example, tiered pricing reduced water use by 26 percent in three years. Other options could consider the marginal cost of adding one more consumer to the irrigation system, or set prices based on the full cost of irrigation M&R.

The lack of water or agricultural policies at the federal or provincial levels has created a free-for-all approach to water. The National Water Policy (NWP) was intended to govern the design and implementation of water projects. Development of the NWP began in 1998, but it was never approved. This decades-long delay may be responsible for the recent growth of private tube wells in some areas, where studies have found alarming rates of groundwater depletion due to over-pumping.

New water projects in Pakistan generally take a top-down approach to project identification, design, and construction. Projects are generally identified by the political elite, with grassroots stakeholders seldom involved or consulted and little or no coordination between provincial agencies and water users. This approach has been responsible for numerous project failures. A classic example was the politically motivated construction of the Dharabi Small Dam, near Chakwal, without the involvement of local farmers, whose lands are at a higher elevation that does not permit irrigation by gravity. A paradigm shift to bottom-up project development that encourages the participation of end users could be a major driver of change to more efficient water use.

In the face of growing water scarcity, Pakistan must raise awareness of the true costs of water, protect individual water rights, plan for the impact of climate change, and promote widespread water conservation. Data-collection systems should be developed by co-riparians, and the data freely shared among large and small farmers and provincial irrigation and agriculture authorities, to promote transparency in water sharing and resolve issues of mistrust.