Pakistan, a once abundant water country, is now on the verge of being categorised water scarce, says a recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Things have changed dramatically in the past two decades: the total water availability per person has plunged from 3,385 cubic metres in 1977 to 1,396 cubic metres in 2011, according to FAO’s Aquastat database.

Four years on, it is estimated to be around 1,000 cubic metres, below which Pakistan would be considered a water scarce country.

These projections mainly consider surface water availability, which is decreasing at an alarming rate. However, the situation at the groundwater front is even more worrying.

Why groundwater is so important

Groundwater is considered a buffer, which in conditions of surface water shortages or droughts provides a backup against food insecurity and environmental threats.

Climate change once considered a buzzword is something that is going to affect South Asian countries the most in the near future. We have already begun to see erratic climatic patterns whereby intense weather events have become routine. The only way we can cope up with uncertain water supplies  is to have resilient and sustained groundwater aquifers.

The impact of climate variability on groundwater is slower as compared to surface water systems. It is estimated that almost 30% of the world’s fresh water resource comes from groundwater. In Pakistan, the share of groundwater in irrigation is 50% which means we are already supplementing our surface water supplies with an equal amount of groundwater. This is expected to further increase with uncertainties in surface water supplies.

Groundwater is a transboundary issue. According to a recent report published by the Stimson Center, nearly half the world is situated in one of 276 transboundary river basins which bear 40% of the world’s population. These 276 international rivers generate 60% of global freshwater.

Groundwater running dry

The transboundary Indus basin is shared between India and Pakistan. A report published by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission of NASA has revealed the Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan as the second-most overstressed aquifer in the world. India ranks number one and Pakistan fourth in the list of top 10 countries in terms of water withdrawals. Pakistan, however, tops the list of countries for water intensity rate (the amount of water, in cubic metres, used per unit of GDP).

The Indus basin aquifer covers parts of the Indian states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan either wholly or partly; in Pakistan, all four provinces fall wholly or partly in the Indus basin. Groundwater in the Indian Punjab and Haryana flows in a western and south-western direction towards Pakistan.  Groundwater has to be managed at the basin level whereby withdrawals on the Indian side may have impact on the groundwater tables on the Pakistani side.

India, Pakistan cooperation

Unfortunately, the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 regulates the waters of western and eastern rivers with no direct relation to groundwater. While this may seem all too gloomy, it also brings an opportunity in itself. There is a possibility of transboundary cooperation in safeguarding the Indus basin aquifer.

As the Stimson Center’s report highlights, groundwater management requires a higher degree of user involvement than surface water development. Top-down control-and-command measures will not work, and actions should be initiated from and with public participation.

The states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana on the Indian side and Punjab on the Pakistan side need to raise awareness at the grassroots level about the economic and ecological benefits of having a resilient groundwater aquifer which could potentially act as a buffer during droughts. The governments need to come up with institutional mechanisms to regulate un-sustained groundwater abstractions across the border and initiate exchange of data on groundwater depths, quality etc. in order to preserve this precious resource.

I am still optimistic that Pakistan can avoid being declared a water scarce country by better management of existing water resources (surface water and groundwater). This can be achieved through change in cropping patterns, use of water saving technologies, use of scientific data on surface and groundwater flows and institutionalised mechanisms to regulate withdrawals.

Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in this article are exclusively those of the author.

The author is a water management professional and a researcher with the International Water Management Institute


  1. Syed Mahmood Nasir |

    Good work. Please also see the report of the Ramsar Advisory Mission RAM to Pakistan. Inter alia the recommendations in flood plain management recommend to Pakistan ways and means to recharge ground water by wise use of floods. We in the Ministry of Climate Change are working to implement this recommendation. Public awareness in particular the decision makers is the key to make this effort a success.
    Please do contact if further details are desired.

    Syed Mahmood Nasir
    IG forests / ED GCISC

    1. Thank you very much for your feedback. I have downloaded RAM’s report and will certainly go through it. Glad that Ministry of climate change is working on the recommendations. we will be in touch very soon.

  2. The only solution is to store excess flood water underground. Pakistan has ten times potential than Kalabagh dam, only that underground aquifers cannot generate electric power..
    What stops us from doing what the Chinese and Europeans have done with flood plain management is that the engineers who hardly understand ecological solutions are afraid form cheap technologies like flood plain management, Because hard engineering structures have high costs and are good for the engineers
    Journalists like Zofeen can create the critical mass in the country to force the federal flood commission to spare time and consider floodplain management as an ecological solution to floods and water scarcity

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  4. Massive artificial recharge programmes and a switch to less water intensive crops and conservation and use of soil moisture rather than surface irrigation is the way out. In India the Central Ground Water Board has formulated a detailed artificial recharge master plan – for this purpose that requires both Government support and public participation for its implementation. Unfortunately it is gathering dust like most other good water resource management plans in this country.

    1. I totally agree with your comment. Glad that you already have this master plan in place. we seriously need to put our efforts in materializing these plans to reality. That’s the only hope moving forward

  5. Thanks for highlighting a most scary spectre. I would however beg to submit that the exclusive over-emphasis on Indus basin would only address part of the issues. The hyper arid and arid zones, especially the Pishin Lora basin and Korakan and Baddo Basins have their peculiar issues and need customised solutions.

  6. Pakistan is only scarce on water management – not in water. We use at least 7 times more water in our irrigation sector than actually needed by the plants. We divert 130 billion cubic meter (BCM) of Indus water into the irrigation sector (out of 179 BCM of mean annual flow of Indus and its tributaries) and use it in the most inefficient way possible. Put back the 100 BCM in the river and get your irrigation efficiency right, and you will be water abundant yet again! We have enough water of our own but trying to involve India in the proposed solutions is just a diversion tactic of our water professionals who are incompetent to fix the problems themselves.

  7. Civilizations are known with their rivers and rivers by their deltas. Pakistan’s Indus Delta is now only 10 percent left. Before 1930 the water discharge to the delta was 150 MAF, dropped down to 80 MAF in 50s and dropped further to 2 MAF in 2001-02. Now the officially available water to the delta is only 10 MAF. For last 8 decades the silt deposit deficit has fundamentally changed the ecology of our country. The changes in weather patterns, hostile monsoons, mini-cyclones in the North and floods in 2010-11 are the results of the degrading the delta. Unfortunately the so-called professional and enlightened lot of Pakistan is still talking about dams and top-down solutions while at least the normally termed as dumb lot like Senate’s standing committee on Science and Tech sends letter to the PM that Thatta, Badin and Karachi will sink with in 30-60 years. I have seen the delta almost from every angle and i can tell with authority why do we have hostile weather up-north and drought-flood extreme cycle — something that does not come under the stereotype weather radar.

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