Pakistan faces a dire water crisis

Amongst the multiple crises that Pakistan currently faces is a severe water and wheat crisis that has significantly affected its social, environmental, and economic development. Successive governments have failed to act to set right this problem, despite knowing that the looming water scarcity will eventually be a challenge of enormous proportions. According to the UN’s ‘Global Water Security 2023 Assessment’ report, Pakistan is in the critically water-insecure category. The report highlights the dramatic decline in per capita water availability in Pakistan, which has decreased by over 80% in the past 70 years. Meanwhile, wheat-producing farmers in Pakistan have taken to the streets over delayed procurement even as a majority of the population struggles to get enough wheat floor for their daily sustenance. They have announced a nation-wide strike starting 10 May to protest the import of wheat!

Water scarcity is a reality in Pakistan despite the country facing unprecedented flooding in 2022, which submerged one-third of the land. Subsequently, in April 2024, Pakistan experienced heavy rainfall that led to flash floods. Pakistan continues to struggle with water stress, a situation expected to worsen by 2035 due to climate change. Water scarcity is also linked to the spread of waterborne diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, dengue, and malaria. Experts attribute the water crisis to factors which include governmental neglect, corruption, and policies favouring water-intensive agriculture. Uzair Sattar, a research associate at the Stimson Centre, emphasized that water insecurity could worsen Pakistan’s existing socio-economic and political challenges.

Pertinently, Pakistan’s financial capital, Karachi, is among the hardest hit by water shortages. Further, the government has been criticized for not tackling the water mafias, which exacerbates water scarcity. During Ramadan this year, the government of Pakistan was unable to provide adequate water supply to the people. A significant portion of the population remains without access to safe drinking water, and Pakistan is experiencing a 30% shortfall in water availability for the upcoming sowing season. The International Monetary Fund had previously warned that Pakistan might reach a stage of absolute water scarcity by 2025. Factors such as a rapidly growing population exacerbate the problem, impacting health, education, and livelihoods.

Agricultural practices in Pakistan, which are highly water-intensive, face sustainability challenges amidst climate change. Warnings from the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources echo the IMF’s predictions that the country could face severe drought by 2025 if no significant measures are taken. Yet, the government’s response remains lacklustre. Experts reiterate that a combination of increasing population, urbanization, unregulated industrialization, and insufficient water management infrastructure are critical factors exacerbating the situation.

Pakistan’s food security is also threatened as the country has become a wheat importing country to meet domestic requirements. This has led to protests by farmers. Following the devastating floods in Pakistan in 2022, wheat farming was disrupted causing a shortage in early 2023. Untimely rains (April 2024) further disrupted wheat production and increased operation costs and lowering output. Al Jazeera reports that while Pakistan consumes around 30 million tonnes of wheat annually, only 26.2 million tonnes were produced in 2022, pushing up prices and resulting in long queues of people trying to buy wheat. There were even instances of people being crushed in crowds trying to access wheat.

The historic shortage of wheat has led the people of Pakistan to demand the government to declare an ‘agricultural emergency’. Food supply shortage amid economic crisis has contributed heavily to the sufferings of people. The recent situation has transpired into the distressing images of people in Pakistan vying for subsidised wheat, resulting in lengthy queues, chase of wheat trucks, and deadly stampedes. The situation in Pakistan is undoubtedly critical. Note that Pakistan ranked 102nd out of the 125 countries in the 2023 Global Hunger Index. Undernourishment due to insufficient calorie intake is one major element, and wheat is the major source of calories for the people of Pakistan. Wheat being the staple food for most Pakistanis forms the bulk of the calorie intake. Slower growth in wheat production has made Pakistan dependent on imports.

Despite being a local ‘bumper crop’, the price of wheat has dropped below the support price of PKR 3,900 per 40 kg, prompting an outrage over the decision to import the cereal, Dawn reported. Pakistan produced 27 million tonnes when its domestic requirement was 31 million tonnes. It imported 3.4 million tonnes of wheat worth US$ 1 billion between July 2023 and March 2024. Imports caused huge losses to Pakistan’s exchequer, which is already under pressure due to unsustainably low foreign reserves.  It is estimated that wheat production is likely to miss the target as the total production would be around 29.6 million tonnes. This has caused wheat prices to go up drastically, leading to widespread dissatisfaction and subsequent mass protests. As production plummeted, people in Pakistan witnessed disrupted supplies and a sharp increase in wheat prices in the past two years. Even government warehouses ran out of wheat. Over 40,000 tonnes of wheat was stolen from warehouses, leading to the suspension of 67 officers.

Pakistani parliamentarian Mushtaq Ahmed alleged that the Islamabad government and leaders were behind the wheat shortage. “I am surprised that enough wheat is available in the silos but who is stealing the flour and chicken; who is stealing the dollars. The hoarders and flour smugglers are sitting in parliament,” he said. Wheat growers are tense as the government is neither procuring their wheat crop nor ensuring fixed remuneration. This has affected the sowing of the upcoming cotton crop. If the wheat produce is not purchased, the farmers won’t have any money to cultivate the cotton. Farmers held protests demanding proper and timely procurement and that too at fair remunerative prices. The two ‘Ws”, water and wheat are critical to Pakistan. Without either or both, Pakistan could be heading for disaster. For the time being, imports will provide Pakistan with enough wheat to feed the people. However, without water to irrigate the crops, farmers will find it very difficult to make both ends meet. Pakistan is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The new government has a challenge on its hands and unless urgent action is initiated, the long-term consequences of the present crisis will be paid for by the next generation.





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