In Focus

Water Conservation and Management in Pakistan

Being an agro-based economy, the entitlement of a water-stressed country and prediction of water scarcity by 2025 for Pakistan, poses existential threats. The choices of cash crops, old irrigation methods and certain traditional agricultural techniques must be revamped to mitigate the challenges.



Pakistan is fast becoming a water scarce country despite having one of the largest irrigation systems and the fourth largest groundwater aquifer in the world. Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) warned in 2016 that if the status quo of population increase rates and stagnant available water resources is maintained, by 2025 the country would be touching the absolute water-scarcity line (annual per capita water availability below 500 m3)1. The recent low flows in the rivers and the associated water issues under climate change scenario are clear indications that the country is fast approaching the projected situation. 
The above raises the question, what should the nation do under such conditions? The answer lies in adopting a two-pronged strategy viz: (i) Store maximum water during flood/wet seasons through large, medium and small dams where possible; and (ii) conserve each and every drop of water either on surface or underground and use the available water judiciously and efficiently. The first strategy would help regulate water from wet seasons to the dry seasons and from wet years to the dry years and would act as a buffer against drought2. The second strategy would help reduce water use in every development sector besides maximizing food production per unit of available water, thereby mitigating the impact of population growth. This article focuses on the second strategy and discusses the importance of water conservation and management.
Water Conservation Policies. There are three major sectors of water use in Pakistan: agriculture, domestic and industrial. The agriculture sector uses more than 93 percent of the available water followed by domestic and industrial sectors. The five major crops viz. wheat, rice, sugarcane, cotton and maize use about 85 percent of the freshwater supplies. This sector accounts for maximum water losses during conveyance in the channels and during application in the field. For example, more than 60 percent water, to the tune of 60 million acre foot (MAF), is lost in the system every year. This is the area which also offers a huge potential for water saving. If, with some simple techniques, only 10 percent of the water is saved, it would be of the order of 6 MAF annually. 
Water conservation and management are at the core of three important national policies: National Water Policy (2018), National Climate Change Policy (2021), and National Food Security Policy (2018). 
The National Water Policy (2018) makes it mandatory to conserve water resources to ensure water and food security for the growing population. It advocates enforcement of policies and legislation to protect water resources through management and technical measures including increasing storage capacities, water conservation technologies, like water metering and efficient irrigation systems to minimize losses in the system.
Similarly, the National Climate Change Policy (2021) advocates measures to protect water through the adoption of management and technical measures such as regulatory frameworks, water licensing, delay action dams, artificial recharge, especially for the threatened aquifers, and adoption of integrated water resource management concepts. It also encourages the development of technological innovations aimed at improved water use efficiency for crops. It emphasizes ensuring water conservation at all levels, reducing irrigation system losses and providing incentives for the adoption of more efficient irrigation techniques.
Pakistan’s national security is linked with its food security which in turn, is directly linked with water security. Therefore, National Food Security Policy (2018) places a great emphasis on the conservation and management of land and water resources. 
Water Conservation in Agriculture
Irrigated Areas. In view of the current water crisis, conserving water use in agriculture sector assumes a very important role for ensuring food security. This can be achieved through lining and appropriate maintenance of the irrigation system, shifting from conventional irrigation methods to efficient irrigation techniques such as planting on bed/ridges, sprinkler and drip irrigation, adopting proper crop zoning and irrigation scheduling.
In the 21st century, when water has become a scarce resource and the world is trying its best to use it efficiently, it is still being used lavishly in Pakistan. One such example is the cultivation of rice in the standing water. Even in Sindh and major parts of the rice growing areas of Naseerabad and Jafferabad districts of Balochistan, highly inefficient Pancho irrigation is still widely practiced. This system involves draining standing water from the field at a regular interval (4-5 days) to the adjoining low-lying areas and its replacement with freshwater, with the misconception that this system reduces water temperature and salinity level in the field. Studies in Pakistan and around the world have proved these as nothing more than myths.
Rice crop, like other crops has its specific water requirement. It is an established fact that rice does not need standing water. It can be grown either on beds/ridges or the required water can even be provided through sprinklers. These techniques save more than 50 percent water without compromising crop yields. 
One of the most important examples of the poor management at the farm level is the inappropriate cropping pattern and lack of crop zoning. High delta crops such as rice and sugarcane are grown even in areas where surface water is insufficient and groundwater is either deep or saline. Cultivation of high delta crops in such areas puts huge pressure on groundwater, resulting not only in depletion, but is also responsible for secondary salinization. 
Logically, rice should be restricted to those areas where sufficient water is available and there is minimum dependence on stored water reserves. Moreover, crops like sugarcane should only be cultivated to fulfil the country’s needs and its export should be banned, as the export of sugar and rice tantamounts to exporting meagre freshwater resources. Recently, Government of Sindh imposed a complete ban on the cultivation of rice for the year 2022, for the perennial canals of Ghotki Feeder, Rohri Canal, Nara Canal, and Khairpur West and East Feeders. We suggest other provinces to take appropriate steps in this direction.


Water conservation is essential in Pakistan, as on it depends sustainable development of all sectors. Especially, agrarian economies like Pakistan should adopt water conservation techniques to cope with water scarcity and increasing food demands. It is indispensable to introduce proper regulations and legislations to lessen water losses in the competing sectors of water use.


It is suggested to introduce edible oil crops that have much less water requirements (10 percent of rice and sugarcane crops). This will not affect the foreign exchange earnings as we are spending almost the same size of foreign exchange on the import of edible oil as is being earned from the export of rice. Sugar should never be produced for export purpose as it is always a loss to the nation, both in terms of water used and subsidy given to the industry1
Dryland Areas. The country’s future food security will depend on the dryland (rainfed) areas which constitute about 40 percent  (12 M ha) of the total culturable area. In the past, maximum investment in agriculture sector in Pakistan has been in the irrigated areas, whereas the rainfed areas have almost been neglected. As a result, it contributes only 10 percent  to the total crop production. 
A number of technologies have been developed for dryland agriculture. By adopting these technologies, land and water productivities of these areas can be increased manifold as there is a wide gap between potential and current productivity levels. This land is largely owned by poor communities and a large area is available for upscaling and outscaling of promising interventions2
Many examples exist within and outside Pakistan. For example, PCRWR developed 110 rainwater harvesting ponds in Cholistan desert, each with a storage capacity of about 4 million gallons. Following PCRWR, the Cholistan Development Authority (CDA) also developed about the same number of ponds in the area. The ponds provide drinking water to the local community and water for the livestock which is the main livelihood of the desert community2. Besides improving the biodiversity, the ponds have helped change the microclimate, acting as a buffer against heatwaves, climate change and drought. 
Another important initiative is the plantation of olives in dry areas. Supported by federal and provincial governments of Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, over 5 million saplings have been planted during the last five years. 
Water Conservation in Domestic and Industrial Sectors. There is a perception that water use in domestic and industrial sectors is less (about 5 percent) and maximum water is used in agriculture (more than 93 percent), therefore, we should be more concerned about the agriculture sector to improve water management. No doubt, water use in domestic and industrial sectors is less as compared to agriculture sector, but it has much more implications for the society and the ecosystem. 
As more than 90 percent domestic and almost 100 percent industrial water comes from groundwater, the overuse of water results in the lowering of water table beyond sustainable levels. The natural recharge in these areas has already been reduced due to urbanization. This phenomenon is occurring in almost all the urban settlements and will have a great impact on people’s health and wellbeing2. 
Secondly, only a fraction (about 5 percent) of the water used in domestic sector is consumed and the rest is returned to the system as wastewater which is disposed off into the surface water bodies. The wastewater generated annually from 16 major cities exceeds 4 MAF. This water may percolate to pollute the aquifers further2. 
The disposal of untreated wastewater into the surface water bodies has a great impact on the whole ecosystem (surface and groundwater, soils, crops, livestock, aquaculture and humans). Many studies show that the surface water bodies are contaminated with microbiological, chemicals, heavy metals and even with Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)3. It is suggested to appropriately charge the sectors responsible for causing water pollution to enable treatment of the polluted water. In this connection, one should not forget that while wastewater is a nuisance, it is a resource as well if treated properly. 
The major reasons for the overuse of water are: (i) general perception that it is a free commodity; (ii) lack of awareness about the importance of water; (iii) lack of any legislation on groundwater use; (iv) inefficient sanitary utensils; and (v) highly water intensive and inefficient industry.
Reducing Water Wastage: Examples from Other Countries. The author visited Canada some time ago (a country with the largest freshwater resources in the world) and collected bills of electricity, gas and water from some households. The domestic water is being provided on volumetric basis and meters have been installed for each household at the inlets and outlets to measure the amount of water used and discharged into the sewerage system. The water charges being paid are at par with those of electricity and gas. 
Another recent example is the management of domestic water in Cape Town, South Africa. The city relies almost entirely on rainfall, which is captured and stored in six major dams. The dams receive water from the catchment areas, largely during the cooler winter months of May to August. The Cape Town water crisis is known as Day Zero (a day when water level of major dams supplying the city could fall below 13.5 percent). Dam water level of Cape Town was declining since 2015, and it peaked during mid-2017 to mid-2018 when water levels hovered between 15 and 30 percent of the total dam capacity. It got out of the water crisis in just two years by the city’s best management strategies and public’s water-saving efforts. Residents were limited to using only 50 liters of water per person per day. This led to monitoring the flushing of toilets, reusing grey water (which is wastewater, except that from toilets), and banning activities that required excessive amounts of water. These included ban on filling pools, washing vehicles, and watering the garden during daytime to reduce evaporation losses. The city installed about 250,000 Water Management Devices (WMD) that set limits for water usage on properties. The devices took the place of traditional water meters and were programmed to shut off a property’s water supply once it had reached the daily limit. Households that used high volumes of water and surpassed limits faced heavy fines. The municipality also temporarily increased water tariffs to discourage excessive use of water in each household. 
Suggested Steps for Pakistan. A two-pronged strategy is required to address the issue of misuse of water in domestic and industrial sectors: (i) Reduce the groundwater abstraction providing water on volumetric basis and imposing the water tariff accordingly. For this purpose, meters should be installed at the household level and for each industrial unit. This is also in line with the approved National Water Policy; (ii) Groundwater recharge should be an integral component of any water development scheme. Rainwater collected from rooftops, public parks and playgrounds may be diverted to aquifers through recharge wells. PCRWR has developed technologies for groundwater recharge which are now being adopted by many development agencies. 
Water conservation can best be understood from the following Hadith:
Abdullah ibn Amr narrated: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said “Conserve water even if you are on the banks of a flowing river.” (Musnad Ahmad, 7065).
Water conservation is essential for Pakistan, as on it depends sustainable development of all sectors. Especially, agrarian economies like Pakistan should adopt water conservation techniques to cope with water scarcity and increasing food demands. It is indispensable to introduce proper regulations and legislations to lessen water losses in the competing sectors of water use. The use of digital technology in agriculture and the domestic sectors will lead to resource sustainability. Industries should also use wastewater treatment to avoid contamination of freshwater sources. It is strongly advocated that industries should promote the 3R system, i.e., Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.


The writer is Chairman, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]


1.   Qureshi R.A., M. Ashraf (2019). Water Security Issues of Agriculture in Pakistan. Pakistan Academy of Sciences, Islamabad, pp. 41.
2.  Ashraf M. (2016). Managing water scarcity in Pakistan: moving beyond rhetoric. In: Proceedings of the AASSA-PAS Regional Workshop on Challenges in Water Security to Meet the Growing Food Requirements, Islamabad, Pakistan. January 19-21, 2016, pp. 3-14.
3.    Imran S., L. N. Bukhari., M. Ashraf (2018). Spatial and temporal trends in river water quality of Pakistan (Sutlej and Ravi). Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), pp. 45.

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