One of the biggest issues facing Pakistan’s newly-elected government, headed by Imran Khan, is how to manage a massive water crisis that has been looming over the country for some time.

An acute water shortage has significantly affected the country’s power generation capacity and agriculture, and the problems are growing.

The crisis become worse with less-than-average rainfall during the monsoon season, while the water flow in rivers dropped more than 20%. This is accompanied by a low water storage capacity and the lack of a water policy to manage the imminent crisis.

The United Nations Development Program and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources issued warnings in May, predicting the country will run dry by the year 2025 if water-availability indicators slid further.

In 1990, the Water Resources council’s research revealed that Pakistan was at the “water stress line,” which was further downgraded to “water scarcity line” in 2005. It warned that if conditions persisted, Pakistan would face a drought-like situation in the very near future. 

The River Indus System Authority (IRSA) also warned of an upcoming catastrophe if the country’s storage system did not improve and environmental degradation continued unabated.

Effect on hydropower and agriculture

“We are absolutely in for a serious water crisis as the channel run-off in the country has dropped to 60 million acre field (MAF) from the 80 MAF regular base in the peak season. The streamflow shows a shortfall of over 20 MAF which will have debilitating impacts on the irrigation system and hydropower generation capacity of the country,” Khalid Rana, a spokesperson for the Indus Rivers System Authority (IRSA), told Asia Times.

The country had minus 28% rainfall from mid-July to mid-August, Rana said, referring to the monsoon season data compiled by the Pakistan Meteorological Department. “Sindh and Baluchistan are the most affected areas with Sindh province having minus 91% and Baluchistan minus 66% rainfall during monsoon cycles.”

He added that climate change played a major role behind below average rainfall and a palpable dip in the streamflow.

The meteorological department’s press release last week revealed that the El-Niño conditions and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) continue to persist in a neutral phase, while the Tibetan High is weaker than normal. The monsoon systems would gradually weaken during August, producing less than average rainfall.

This would exaggerate the prevailing drought conditions in parts of Sindh and Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest province. Less than average rainfall would affect the catchment areas of major rivers having dams for water storage.

The hydroelectricity potential of Pakistan has been impacted by receding streamflow as insufficient water slowed down the power plants. The country’s hydropower generation units are using only half of their installed capacity to produce electricity. The power imbalances have triggered major power breakdowns and prolonged power cuts affecting the industrial and social fabric of the country.

Pakistan’s effective capacity to generate hydropower has gone down significantly due to water shortages in reservoirs. The Mangla dam’s water storage has fallen to 45%, while Tarbela’s is still below its total storage capacity, a senior official of the Water & Power Development Authority said. The combined water storage of these units, he said, was somewhere at 6.3 MAF as against 11.7 MAF water stored in the same period last year.

Sources in the power division said the Mangla dam was generating 200 Megawatts (MW) against its capacity of 1,000 MW, Tarbela 3000MW against 3478MW and Neelum Jhelum 650MW against 969 MW.

“The steep shortfall in the water storage system will reflect on Punjab province, which is the food basket of the country,” the official said, adding that there would be a reduction of 13 MAF of water for winter in agriculture and the Punjab was going to have a mammoth water scarcity in the coming few years.

In June, the IRSA warned authorities of a chronic water crisis, as only 220,000 cusec acres of water was available in reserves to meet growing demand in the country. In the pre-monsoon period, water storage in the reserves stood at 0.220 MAF. The IRSA, while underscoring the vulnerability of Punjab and Sindh provinces, predicted that these provinces would face more than half, or 51%, of the total water shortfall in the country.

Lack of storage

“We do not have enough water storage capacity to meet the international benchmark and on top of it our existing storage resources have lost almost half of its capacity to hold water for emergent need,” Khalid Rana said, adding that in the Chenab River alone more than 80,000 Cusec feet of water goes to waste due to lack of storage capacity.

An official at the Ministry of Energy and Power division claimed the total storage capacity of Pakistan was 10% against global water storage capacity of 40%. He added that the capacity of existing dams had been depleted by 50%. On the other hand, other countries were far ahead of Pakistan. Its neighbor India, he said, intended to build an additional 2,500 dams by 2050 to add 180 Billion Cubic Meter (BCM) of storage.

“India currently has the water carryover capacity of 220 days, Egypt 1,000 days on the Nile River only, America 900 days, Australia 600 days, while South Africa has the carryover capacity of 500 days on the Orange River,” he said.

Sources revealed that Pakistan’s hydropower system only has plants in northern parts of the country, which run on the availability of water.  With water inflows reduced by 45% due to climate change, this has impacted hydropower generation.