Water is becoming increasingly scarce in the country, despite having Pakistan's Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS), the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world . About 95% of Pakistan’s total renewable water resources come from the Indus basin. This high dependency on a single river system makes Pakistan’s water environment one of relatively high risk . According to the country’s first Biennial Update Report (2022), presently, about 93% of Pakistan’s water resources are used in agriculture, 5% in the domestic sector and only 2% in the industrial sector. However, the domestic and industrial sector uses are projected to increase to 15% by 2025, causing a reduction in the share of the agriculture sector . Freeing up this irrigation water without compromising food security will be a complex challenge for Pakistan .
With a rapidly growing population, Pakistan is heading towards a situation of water shortage, which is threatening food security. According to the country’s National Water Policy (2018), per capita surface water availability has already declined from 5,260 cubic meters per year in 1951, to around 1,000 cubic meters in 2016. This quantity is likely to further drop to about 860 cubic meters by 2025 marking Pakistan’s transition from a “water stressed” to a “water scarce” country .
Water resources are inextricably linked with climate; hence, the projected climate changes in Pakistan have serious implications for the county's water resources. Fresh water resources in Pakistan are based on snow and glacier-melt and monsoon rains, both highly sensitive to climate change. Climate change projections strongly suggest the following future trends in Pakistan: decrease in glacier volume and snow cover leading to alterations in the seasonal flow pattern of the Indus River System (IRS); increased annual flows for a few decades followed by decline inflows in subsequent years; increase in the formation and outburst of glacial lakes; higher frequency and intensity of extreme climate events coupled with irregular monsoon rains causing frequent floods and droughts; and greater demand on water due to higher evapo-transpiration rates at elevated temperatures , . These trends will have a significant impact on the spatial and temporal distribution of water resources on both an annual and inter-annual basis in the country. This will further exacerbate the already difficult situation of a water-stressed country facing demand increases due to population growth and increasing economic activity .
As Pakistan’s glaciers retreat, more glacial lakes will form, increasing the risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF), which are already becoming increasingly common and hazardous in the Northern parts of the country . Accelerating glacier melt has created more than 3,000 glacial lakes in Gilgit Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and of these lakes, 33 are assessed as prone to hazardous GLOF, placing 7.1 million people at risk. These sudden events can unleash millions of cubic meters of water and debris, leading to the loss of lives, property, livestock, and livelihoods of remote mountain communities .
Declining water quality is also a major concern in Pakistan, as many millions of people are exposed to unsafe drinking water . Studies have shown that between one-third and one-half of water used for drinking is bacterially contaminated with E. coli at source, and this includes piped water . Work by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) in 2010, indicated that water-linked diseases in Pakistan cause national income losses of PRs 25 billion to 28 billion annually, approximately between 0.6 and 1.44% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) . Further, according to the World Bank (2019), though information on the causes of death in Pakistan is inadequate, waterborne diseases are estimated to be the primary cause of death for about 15,000 people living in urban and 25,000 people living in rural areas, annually .
In recent years, Pakistan has made considerable improvements in its WASH services. According to the SDG 6 Country Acceleration Case Study 2022 on Pakistan, 60% of the population in rural areas and 80% in urban areas have access to a basic sanitation service. Access to at least basic water supply currently stands at more than 90% of the population compared to the 85% in 2010. Open defecation is virtually abolished in urban areas and is gradually declining even in rural areas, where it is now practiced by only 12% of the rural population. Yet, this means that around 15 million Pakistanis still practice open defecation. Access to hygiene in Pakistan has also seen substantial improvements over the years, as access to a handwashing facility with water and soap has increased to a remarkable 74% in rural areas and 90% in urban areas .
However, following the 2022 floods, WASH facilities in some of the hardest hit flood areas of Pakistan have suffered major damage, leaving already vulnerable communities exposed to increased risk of disease. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, up to 50% of WASH facilities in Punjab and Sindh provinces have suffered major damage. In Balochistan in the southwest, some 30% of water systems have been affected while in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, home to the Swat Valley, 20% of water systems have been impacted by the flood .
Water resources management in Pakistan is compromised by poor water data, information, and analysis; weak processes for water resources planning and allocation; environmentally unsustainable levels of water withdrawal; widespread pollution; and low water productivity in agriculture . These challenges are expected to be exacerbated with increasing water demands, due to population growth and increasing economic activity, and climate change , .
Climate change is the biggest long-term risk to Pakistan’s water sector. Over the coming decades, climate change is not expected to greatly alter average water availability, but inflows will become more variable between and within years, increasing the severity of floods and droughts. Climate change is also expected to increase water demand in the country, on top of the rising demands due to population growth and increasing economic activity. According to Young et al. (2019), by 2047, climate warming is expected to drive water demands up 5% - 15%. In the upper Indus Basin, accelerated glacial melting will increase the risks of dangerous glacial lake outburst floods. In the lower Indus Basin, sea level rise and increases in the frequency and severity of coastal storms will exacerbate seawater intrusion into the delta and into coastal groundwater. In coastal Sindh, this will further degrade groundwater quality, groundwater dependent ecosystems, and irrigation productivity .
Water is being contaminated by increasing salinity, improper disposal of untreated wastewater, agricultural runoff with pesticide and fertilizer residue, and geogenic (natural) contaminants. Irrigation adds around 16 million tons of salt to the Indus basin every year, threatening soil health and agricultural production. Faecal contamination of water resources is endemic due to poor water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services .
Key policies and governance approach
The Water Apportionment Accord was signed in 1991, and in 1992, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) was established by federal legislation to implement the accord . The Water Apportionment Accord is an agreement between the Provinces of Pakistan on the distribution of water from the Indus River system; it sets out the principles governing water apportionment and the use of water resources by each Province . However, rather than exploring hydraulic or economic optimality, it specifies and protects the existing uses of water for each province .
In 2006, Pakistan developed its National Sanitation Policy focused on driving behavioural change and ensuring safe waste disposal and universal access to basic sanitation. This was followed by a National Drinking Water Policy in 2009, focused on improving water access, treatment, and conservation through enhanced community participation and public awareness, cost-effective infrastructure, research and development, and public-private partnerships. Following the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, however, water supply and sanitation responsibilities—including legislation, policy, planning, and service provision—moved fully to provincial governments. The earlier national policies provide general guidance to the provinces, which have each developed policy frameworks .
In 2018, Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments jointly adopted a National Water Policy, the first comprehensive policy framework to guide coordinated water reform and investment across Pakistan . The National Water Policy (2018) outlines the government's approach to water management and sets out the principles, goals, and objectives for water sector development. The policy focuses on the conservation and efficient use of water resources, as well as the equitable distribution of water among different sectors and regions . The policy also embraces the recommendations of the National Climate Change Policy to counter the adverse effects of climate change, in particular extreme weather events .
In terms of governance, Pakistan has a decentralized approach to water management, with the federal government, provincial governments, and local governments all playing a role in the sector. The federal government is responsible for formulating national water policies, while the provinces and local governments are responsible for implementing these policies.
Concerning transboundary water management, the Indus Basin Treaty (IBT), signed in 1960, governs transboundary water distribution between Pakistan and India. However, only the distribution of surface water was included in the IBT, and as a result, there has been significant over pumping of groundwater in India from the transboundary Indus Aquifer .
Successes and remaining challenges
Pakistan’s deteriorating water resources situation requires Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) . In this respect, the country has made considerable progress in recent years, including through the adoption of the National Water Policy, which resulted in a paradigm shift in water resources planning, development, and management practices in the country. Additionally, public participation in water resources planning, policy and management during the last 5 years has increased substantially, and awareness has been generated among Pakistan’s vulnerable groups on IWRM. Specifically, vulnerable groups actively participate in disaster related interventions and are actively taking part in consultations regarding small dam activities .
However, despite this progress, Pakistan still faces many barriers/challenges to the implementation of IWRM in the country, including: inadequate transboundary water management arrangements, for instance, no agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan exists for the sharing of the Kabul River; there are too many organizations involved in IWRM implementation with overlapping mandates; the country’s water laws needs to be re-visited so that they reflect the current and future scenarios of water availability; limited implementation of water laws and regulations especially at local levels; insufficient management instruments for pollution control and management of water-related ecosystems; and finally, limited aquifer management plans .
In addition, Pakistan also faces challenges in its WASH sector, mainly related to funding. Presently, the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan are allocating around USD 1 billion a year to WASH services in the country, which is much lower than the annual investment that is needed for Pakistan to implement SDG 6.1 (access for all to safe drinking water) and SDG 6.2 (access for all to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene) . As a result, Pakistan faces large WASH infrastructure gaps that need to be addressed with significant financial resources . Further, following the 2022 floods, this situation has been worsened as WASH infrastructure across the country has been damaged or destroyed. The multi-hazard resilient reconstruction of damaged or destroyed public infrastructure in the WASH sector is estimated to cost PKR 58 billion (US$270 million) .
Initiatives and Development Plans
The Recharge Pakistan initiative is focused on effectively managing and prudently utilizing the country’s water resources by turning catastrophic floods into an opportunity for recharging aquifers and naturally restoring ecosystems . By 2030, the project envisages the reduction of flood risk and enhanced water recharge at six sites in the Indus Basin, building resilience of 10 million people, as well as strengthening vulnerable ecosystems. Pakistan has allocated PKR 6 billion from its national resources to commence the activities in three sites, namely Manchar & Hamal wetland, Taunsa pond area, and Dera Ismail Khan .
In 2021, the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors approved $442 million in financing to support Pakistan in improving access to water and sanitation services for the most vulnerable rural communities in Punjab province. The Punjab Rural Sustainable Water Supply and Sanitation Project (PRSWSSP) will help upgrade water supply and sanitation infrastructure and services to ensure equitable and sustainable access to drinking water and safe wastewater management. In particular, the project will prioritize rural settlements, where water contamination and poor sanitation practices are more prevalent .
Goals and Ambitions
Pillar IV of the country’s Vision 2025 strategy, includes the following goals on water: increase water storage capacity to 90 days; improve efficiency of use in agriculture by 20%; and ensure access to clean drinking water for all Pakistanis .
- The Ministry of Water Resources should be strengthened and given the lead in the implementation of the country’s IWRM plans.
- The government needs to increase its financial allocation to the water sector.
- Provincial plans should be integrated with the National Water Policy implementation framework to achieve better coordination for the development of water resources.
- Coordination among federal organizations needs to be improved for effective IWRM implementation at the national level.
- Develop an integrated basin & aquifer management plan.
- Establish a transboundary water management organization to oversee the implementation of the Indus Basin Treaty (IBT), and to deal with other transboundary matters such as groundwater, the Kabul River basin, transboundary coastal region etc.
- Transboundary water arrangements need to be revised (IBT), so that they consider current and future scenarios of climate change, water demand and use, groundwater management, and environmental flow requirements.
- Old water laws need to be re-visited, with the involvement of all relevant stakeholders.
- Laws pertaining to water pricing need to be prepared and implemented for managing water demand and use, ranging from agriculture, industrial, domestic, and others at different levels.
- Capacity building of the organizations which are mandated to implement water laws and regulations is needed.
- Improve coordination with NGOs to create awareness on water pollution and management of water-related ecosystems.
- The government should fund NGOs to enable them to reach out to vulnerable groups. On the other hand, vulnerable groups could work on self-help models to improve the water resources and related conditions in their region. For example, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the local population has installed 360 micro hydel stations on a self-help basis.
- Ensure strict compliance with the National Water Policy guidelines, especially regarding groundwater management and the establishment of groundwater authorities in each province.
- Strengthen Pakistan’s water data, information, mapping, modeling, and forecasting.
- Establish an enabling environment for increasing private sector participation in the water sector.
- Strengthen collaboration between the public and the government at the local level to address specific water related issues. E.g., Local universities and NGOs could collaborate to study and highlight issues, develop solutions, propose legislations (if required) and coordinate with the local government authorities to implement the solutions.
 World Bank Group. 2022. Pakistan Country Climate and Development Report. CCDR Series;. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank Group. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/38277 License: CC BY-NC-ND.
 UNDRR (2022). MELTING GLACIERS, GROWING LAKES AND THE THREAT OF OUTBURST FLOODS. [Online]. Available: https://www.preventionweb.net/news/melting-glaciers-growing-lakes-and-threat-outburst-floods.
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 The World Bank (2021). Managing Groundwater Resources in Pakistan’s Indus Basin. [Online]. Available: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2021/03/25/managing-groundwater-resources-in-pakistan-indus-basin.
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 The World Bank Group (2021). Pakistan to Invest in Water and Sanitation Services to Boost Health and Climate Resilience in Punjab Province. [Online]. Available: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2021/06/18/pakistan-to-invest-in-water-and-sanitation-services-to-boost-health-and-climate-resilience-in-punjab-province.