Real estate trumps water in Pakistan’s capital

Water storage is sacrificed for real estate development, worsening water shortages in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad and its twin city Rawalpindi

Ghulam Haider’s day starts soon after dawn to queue outside the office of the Capital Development Authority (CDA), the government department responsible for providing the city’s water supply. He wants to order water from a tanker.

Haider lives in the G10 residential district of Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad – and like many households in the city, his only gets water from the mains three to four hours a day.

Once the wait is over, he pays around Rs 100 to Rs 150 (US$1 to US$1.5) for a tanker to be delivered to his house – which takes hours or sometimes days to arrive. One tanker is shared among three households.

To avoid the wait, Haider could buy water from a private tanker service, but this is expensive: a tanker costs between Rs 1,000 and Rs 3,000 (US$10 to US$30) depending on the distance. The water filtration plant installed in his area often does not work. So the family has to buy bottled water for drinking.

Health hazards

Ahmed Ali, a resident of Gawalmandi in Islamabad’s twin city Rawalpindi – around 13 kilometres south of Islamabad’s centre – faces similar problems. The nearby tube well is no longer in use because groundwater levels have dropped and the water provided through rusted and leaky pipes is available for only a few hours at a time.

He and other families in the neighbourhood also have to buy water from a private tanker and store it in underground water tanks or containers. This often leads to the spread of diseases such as dengue. Rawalpindi has seen a record number of dengue cases this summer – the potentially lethal virus is spread by mosquitos that breed in stagnant water. Rawalpindi officials fear the outbreak is getting out of control. Islamabad has also seen a large number of cases.

Ahmad and Ghulam’s plight illustrate the struggles of many people facing growing water shortages in the twin cities.

Limited supply

A city of two million people, Islamabad’s water demand is 176 million gallons per day (mgd) – more than triple the supply, according to statistics provided by CDA.

The city draws most of its water from reservoirs behind Simly and Khanpur dams, and the rest from a few shallow tube wells.

Water shortage has forced residents to buy from tankers and get drinking water from the 38 odd filtration plants across the city, or buy bottled water. Filtration plants are not reliable due to technical faults and frequent power cuts.

As a result, water has become one of the factors for people to decide where to live. Properties with a better water supply fetch higher rents, says Muhammad Jameel, a real estate advisor in Islamabad.

Rawalpindi has a current shortfall of about 13 mgd – about 26% of the total supply – which is expected to increase to 40 mgd by 2025.

About 30% of water comes from Rawal and Khanpur dams (the second one is shared with Islamabad); and 40% is pumped from the city’s 350 tube wells – which has led to falling groundwater levels. In most of the newly established housing compounds, boreholes meet the water demands of residents.

The size and population of Rawalpindi has grown substantially over the years, and this has increased the city’s water deficit, says Chaudhry Saeed, former managing director of Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) in Rawalpindi. The government had planned to build dams at Chirah, Korang stream and Dadocha. But all the work has stalled because of funding problems and bureaucratic obstacles.

During the summer months, Rawalpindi has to ration the dwindling water supplies it shares with Islamabad.

Mismanagement and military corruption

The water systems of Rawalpindi and Islamabad fall under different jurisdictions, making it more difficult to find solutions. Rawalpindi’s water is managed by the Rawalpindi Cantonment Board (RCB) under the Ministry of Defence, while Islamabad’s water is the responsibility of the state-run WASA.

The water woes of the twin cities have been exacerbated by mismanagement of politicians and business people, a senior government official in the federal government told thirdpole.net, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Over the years, local politicians have installed numerous tube wells to appease voters, he said. Members of the national and provincial assemblies believe this is the best way to ensure public support, despite the negative ramifications on the water table. Politicians should have focused on building reservoirs and repairing faulty water pipelines instead, he argued.

The Dadocha dam – which was supposed to supply water to the twin cities – has not been built because the land was used by the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) instead. DHA is the Pakistan Army’s real estate venture in partnership with private companies Bahria Town and Habib Rafiq group. The area is now under the DHA Valley housing project.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has ordered the Punjab provincial government to explain why the land has not been used for the dam as intended. The matter is in court.

Harnessing rainwater can be another way to meet the city’s needs, says Shahid Ahmad, an Islamabad based water expert. At the moment, rainwater mixes with untreated waste and pours into the Nullah Lai – a natural water stream that flows through Rawalpindi. The stream often overflows during the monsoon. The stream’s catchment area extends 240 square kilometres across both cities.

Tapping the Indus: the ultimate solution?

Experts believe the only way for Islamabad and Rawalpindi to meet future demand is by getting 200 mgd of water from the Indus system. This would require the other four provinces – Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – to sacrifice a proportion of their water behind the Tarbela dam. The Tarbela is the world’s largest earth-filled dam. It is on the Indus, 50 kilometres north of Islamabad. The water is allocated to each province based on its population.

But the Sindh government has objected, said Shakeel Durrani, former chairman of state-run Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). Without the province’s support for the project, it will be hard to address water woes of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, he added.