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Focus on water crisis

[Pakistan] Drought has dramatically hit much of Baluchistan
Prolonged drought still affects much of the country (IRIN)

Imagine a city of over a million people without water. Such a scenario looms over Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan, where drought and intensive exploitation of ground-water reservoirs mean a crisis could manifest itself within the next few years.

While the upper replenishable alluvial aquifers are already stressed by the ongoing drought and the drilling of too many tube-wells in the valley, the government is digging more deep wells to extract water from the hard-rock aquifers to bridge the gap between supply and demand in the city.

Explaining the issue, Nadir Gul Barech, provincial coordinator with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, told IRIN that water had been identified as one of the priority issues in the Balochistan Conservation Strategy (BCS) document, drafted after a long consultative process involving all stakeholders.

"Dramatic population increase, over-exploitation of the ground-water, and drought have led us into a water crisis," he said, adding that more than 2,000 tube-wells were now pumping out water for Quetta alone. A decade ago, water was available 30 metres below the surface. Now it is difficult to find any above 100 metres.

"A report in the early 1990s predicted that Quetta will be a dead city within two decades, because no water will be available," Barech said. "The BCS has strongly recommended that the provincial capital should be shifted to another location, relieving Quetta of the current population pressure," he added. He maintained that the issue in Quetta was not only that of water scarcity but also a lack of proper water management.

Quetta was originally built for some 50,000 people after the devastating earthquake of 1935, but now houses 20 times as many. With the regional drought moving into its fourth year, water availability in the cup-shaped valley is rapidly decreasing. The problem has been compounded by the digging of about 24,000 tube-wells, and the fact that the city's population has grown dramatically due to the Afghan refugee influx and an escalating movement of people from villages into Quetta over the past two decades.

The water crisis has severe implications. Already thousands of farmers have chopped down their orchards because the proliferating tube-wells have served to divert water away from the hundreds of karezes, or centuries-old underground channels, formerly used to irrigate the fruit-trees.

Ironically, the government is trying to resolve the crisis by boring more tube-wells. To meet the growing demand for water in the city, it dug dozens of additional deep tube-wells to bring in the perennial fossil water from under the mountain rocks. Experts believe that the situation will deteriorate further if a comprehensive solution to the problem is not quickly identified and implemented.

Explaining the reason for the decision to extract fossil water, Asif Nazir Rana, assistant director at the Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP), said: "Natural resources are not unlimited, it's up to the people to plan and use them wisely. In order to resolve the crisis, the government first tried artificial rain, but that did not work. Then it turned into tapping the ground-water resources."

In a joint inter-agency effort, the GSP surveyed the valley and selected some 30 sites for drilling. Of 39 wells dug so far, at least 24 were successful. Six of these have been connected to the main supply line into which they discharge about 3.5 million gallons a day. Eventually, some 25 million gallons of water a day will be supplied in this way. The drilling operation is part of a major US $100 million water-supply project for Quetta.

Asked if, once drained, the hard-rock water could ever be replenished, Syed Ghazanffar Abbas, a geologist with GSP, said he believed the reserve could recover, but at a slow rate.

On steps taken to resolve the water crisis, Abdus Salam Khan, secretary of the Irrigation and Power Department of Balochistan, said the department planned the construction of some 72 delayed- action dams, or stone and clay structures retaining water to raise ground-water levels. The government was also trying to revive the karez channels by cleaning many of them. "With the drilling of wells to extract the hard-rock water, the situation [indicative] of a crisis has been overcome," he maintained.

The crisis may be over for the time being, but nobody knows whether or not the extraction of the reserves of fossil water will lead to a new one. The government's recent decision to drill another 3,000 tube-wells, is just another ominous sign, experts say.

Reacting to the doomsday scenario of Quetta being deserted by the unavailability of water, Khan pointed out that there was an assessment that the fossil water would last till 2025. "Maybe we will find some more locations by then to explore," he added.

Asked whether such practices would result in sustainable water use and the preservation of the current levels, Khan said: "We have appointed a consultant to study the phenomenon." He added that the decision on how the water would be used would then be based on the recommendations of experts.

Replying to the assertion that there were hardly any regulations governing the drilling of the new tube-wells which were causing substantial damage to the water reserves, he maintained that the government had banned the digging of private tube-wells. However, many Quetta residents told IRIN that there was hardly any enforcement of such regulations.

Khan said that the process of framing a water policy was under way, and that the installation of water meters on all tube-wells was also under consideration.

However, farmers in the area continue to suffer. Abdul Mannan, working in his fields in Toor Kach village in the Hanna Urak area bordering the northeastern suburbs of Quetta, told IRIN that they were facing severe problems because of water shortages. "There have been no rains for the last three years, and the water level below the surface is constantly decreasing," he said, adding that sometimes even the availability of drinking water in the fruit-growing valley was a problem.

Young Abdul Mannan has chopped down his orchard of about 80 apple trees because of lack of water. Formerly, the orchard earned his family some US $1,200 every season. A nearby stream has dried up, and the water in Lake Hanna has touched rock bottom.

Abdul Mannan and his brothers are lucky to have jobs in various government departments, but many in their village depend entirely on agriculture, which has been devastated by the ongoing severe regional drought and the constant reduction of the groundwater resources.

As to a solution to the crisis, Barech stressed that nothing would work short of a comprehensive water policy. "Life depends on water and we have to be very careful about it." he said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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