Water has now become a commodity in many parts of the world. This is a problem in and of itself, as water is essential for every living thing. However, instead of being equally and fairly available to all, water mafias have emerged around the world and put a stranglehold on this essential resource. In Pakistan, this is most starkly seen in urban centers; however, rural areas have also been affected. Urban or rural, the most impoverished sectors of society are the ones most negatively impacted by water’s commoditization. This situation is ripe for conflict, especially in places where poor governance and rule of law are endemic. 

Pakistanis walk across the main highway on the border of the Sindh and Punjab provinces of southern Pakistan, Aug. 22, 2010. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Pakistanis walk across the main highway on the border of the Sindh and Punjab provinces of southern Pakistan, Aug. 22, 2010. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

In Pakistan, climate change and water governance are going to impact the availability of water resources in the coming years. Scarcity and monopolies over water resources are both potential flashpoints for conflict, and policies must be enacted to prevent climate- and resource-related conflict. Recent public outcry around the issue has created an impetus for the government to act. This presents a unique opportunity: financial investments to back prudent solutions can help provide Pakistan’s population an equitable access to water and prevent a water crisis.

Legal Frameworks for Water Resources

Article 9 of the Constitution of Pakistan enshrines the fundamental right to life and liberty. Pakistan’s higher courts have elaborated on this right to include water. In Shehla Zia vs. WAPDA (1994), the Supreme Court held that Article 9 includes the right to a clean and healthy environment and in another case the Supreme Court opined that the right to clean water belongs to every person. In 2005, the court introduced the Doctrine of Public Trust, which holds that groundwater is a national resource belonging to the entire society, and the government must protect it for the general public.

At the federal level, three main pieces of legislation are relevant. The 1958 Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) Act (1958) stipulates that the authority may “frame a scheme or schemes for a province,” providing for, among other matters: irrigation, water supply, and drainage; generation, transmission, and distribution of power and the construction and operation of powerhouses and grids; and flood control. The WAPDA also has control over the underground water resources of any region in the country.

Meanwhile, the 1992 Indus River System Authority (IRSA) Act governs water-sharing mechanisms between provinces, particularly regarding dispute resolution. The 1882 colonial-era Easements Act deals with groundwater rights; Section 7 recognizes “the right of every owner of land to collect and dispose within his own limits of all water under the land.” This stipulation in effect allows property owners to extract groundwater without any oversight from the state. Recent developments in Punjab have changed this.

Recent Developments in Water Policy and Law

In 2018, the government drafted its first-ever water policy. Unlike previous legislation that dealt with distinct water issues, the National Water Policy 2018 (NWP) is an overarching framework that addresses various issues driving Pakistan’s water crisis. The NWP lays out the state’s strategic priorities and addresses issues such as climate change, drinking water and sanitation, urban water and flood management, water rights and obligations, sustainable water infrastructure, and conservation. Critics bemoan the policy’s continuing focus on mega projects (like building dams), while paying lip service to integrated water management. Some provisions of the policy also have contradicting purposes and questions related to funding sources and instruments to achieve the listed objectives are left unanswered.

Punjab became the first province to pass its own water legislation in 2019. The 2019 Punjab Water Act in effect replaces the colonial-era Easements Act. While all landowners could previously extract groundwater on their property without state oversight, the act establishes the Punjab Water Resources Commission, tasked with conserving and allocating water resources in Punjab and ensuring their proper usage. In 2020, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed a similar bill for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Water Act as Sindh finalized its own legislation. Although still in the implementation phase, these recent developments in the legal framework could address many potential flashpoints for conflict; however, proper implementation will likely pose a stumbling block.

Domestic Conflicts over Water?

The legal frameworks, whether on paper or in practice, are only part of the story when it comes to ensuring water security and preventing water-related conflict in Pakistan. There are a number of governance and conflict dynamics that the country must address to ensure equal and equitable access and distribution of water resources. For example, Lahore has seen rationing of water given the drastic decrease of available groundwater—nearly 800 feet in the last 15 years. This rationing hurts both elites and the poorest segments of society, with elites skirting policies to ensure their gardens and lawns remained green.

In Karachi, Islamabad, and Quetta, among other cities, water tanker mafias continue to take advantage of economic inequality. This is an entrenched system in which it is illegal, but perfectly permissible, to siphon off water from a city’s water system by creating access points in government pipes, usually on private land. This circumvents local governments, who should provide access to not only drinking water, but also water for household use, through underground water lines.

The Punjab Water Act seemed to acknowledge the problem of water mafias by creating “water undertakers” and “sewerage undertakers,” which can be “a company, a local government or a statutory authority” appointed by the commission to “develop and maintain an efficient and economical system of water supply.” This includes a supply of water for domestic as well as industrial purposes. Crucially, under Section 38, undertakers are entitled to fix charges for their services.

It is unclear whether “undertakers” are an attempt by the government to legitimize and regulate existing water mafias, or if they are meant to overhaul and replace them. In any case, the development raises serious issues regarding equitable access to water. For groundwater users who are not currently reliant on water mafias, the new fee for service structure will come as an economic shock, particularly to low-income households and farmers. Moreover, there are the challenges associated with policy implementation and monitoring groundwater extraction.

Corruption is not the only source of problems for the country’s water supply. Women and girls are most impacted by the lack of household available water as they are the ones tasked with fetching water, whether from wells, water pumps, or neighborhood shops. Many report being harassed when trying to access water. This is even more worrisome as the number of cases of young girls being kidnapped, assaulted, and killed in their own neighborhoods grows.

In the aftermath of the summer 2020 floods in Pakistan, Lahore saw waters recede within 24 hours but Karachi had weeks of deep standing water across the city. For the first time in recent memory, the elites of the city came out in the streets to protest the city government’s handling of the flooding. The protests in Karachi highlighted the extent to which poor water management systems are becoming a source of public discontent in Pakistan. However, it is the poorest that remain disproportionately affected by strained water resources.

Whether it is corruption in access to water or the impact of flooding, stark inequalities are apparent across the spectrum of issues related to water availability. While an all-out conflict over water resources in Pakistan is unlikely in the immediate term, as the struggle for clean water continues, the government will face challenges in providing this essential service. Will governments, either provincial or federal, be toppled because of water access? Not necessarily, but the confidence of people in their government to provide basic services, which is already low, will further erode. The ability of the government to ensure the social contract is the crux of any democracy.

No major Pakistani political party has been able to address these challenges in a holistic manner but have instead focused on broader climate change policies. Most notably, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, has established initiatives, like planting 10 billion trees and promising to curb coal reliance. However, the ways in which clean water for all fits into the equation remain to be seen.

The Way Forward

While there is a contrast between aspirational laws and the reality on the ground, there are tangible steps that both the national and provincial governments can take to address water security in Pakistan. Some are immediate actions while others are incremental and will take greater political will to implement.

These recommendations include:

  • Further investment in clean water projects to mitigate the need for reliance on external water sources. The ability to bring water, whether potable or not, directly into households is a necessity and ensures that the most vulnerable populations are not endangered when trying to fetch water. The PTI has inaugurated some clean water projects, but on a relatively small scale compared to the greater national need for accessible, clean water. This is where foreign investment and partnerships can be leveraged for big-ticket items like desalination efforts and improvement of rural and urban water infrastructure on the national and provincial levels.
  • Improved solid waste management and urban planning by provincial governments to ensure the overwhelming crisis that occurred during the most recent floods is not repeated. Many of the problems stemmed from unchecked and illegal construction around waterways and the solid waste that blocked drainage systems.
  • Greater efforts to control and eventually regulate so-called “water tanker mafias.” Local governments and police must come together to create and enforce local policy of the water system. A local effort to ensure that water is not stolen and sold at hugely inflated prices will instill more faith in local governments from their constituents.
  • Focus policy and legislative efforts on low-cost solutions, rather than big-ticket items like dams. One idea is to require landowners to harvest rainwater in proportion to the size of their property. Neighboring India has effectively implemented such policies for a number of years and can provide a blueprint.

Pakistan’s current water situation is untenable. In the last two years, the issue has gained national prominence and urgency. The federal and provincial governments have shown a willingness to introduce policies and legislation to address serious problems. This momentum can be harnessed by financial investments in well thought-out policy recommendations that can help Pakistan’s government ensure water security and equity—and avoid a crisis.

Faiqa Mahmood is an editor for South Asian Voices where she manages the platform’s Urdu channel.

A version of this piece was originally published on South Asian Voices and has been cross posted with permission of the editors.

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