If the water management issue is not addressed on an urgent basis, the day is not far when water would be as scarce as electricity and gas are today in Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan had been warned of this crisis for decades, but in vain. Experts repeatedly state that Pakistan is a water scarce country and the situation is going from bad to worse. To be honest, my fear is not ‘scarcity’, but the overall mismanagement of this asset. As someone once said, “There is enough for every man’s need, but not for greed.”
Whether scarce or abundant, there has to be an equitable distribution system for water. In fact, equitable water management becomes all the more important when there is the issue of scarcity. Simply put, it is an alarming sign when a person has the resources and ability to extract large amounts of water from the ground and waste it while others have to travel hours to get a bucketful – this situation needs to be managed. This is one of the primary responsibilities of all governments.
This problem is more severe in cities. We have seen Karachi this summer. We all know that this was not just associated with ‘shortage’ but with greed and mismanagement. In other cities, the media is quiet about this issue since it affects the middle class and the poor only and these groups have accepted their situation as bad fate.
In a recent study conducted by the Urban Unit in Faisalabad, it was discovered that the WASA (Water and Sanitation Agency of the Government of Punjab) provides piped water to less than 50 per cent of the city population. What do the rest of the citizens do, since there is no potable ground water which can be pumped out?
So, the people have to depend upon private water operators that sell water in blue polypropylene cans and drums (a proven health hazard) on donkey carts. This leads an average household to pay approximately PKR 1,200 per month just for kitchen water. In most cases, they have to dig a pump and motor for the washing and cleaning and spend PKR 800 to 1,000 on electricity, totalling up to PKR 2,000 per month. On the other hand, households connected with the WASA system pay less than PKR 300 per month for non-metered supply of water. Isn’t this mismanagement? Are we not responsible for all citizens? The current situation presents us with a very bleak future of cities.
‘Who’ pays for water is another issue. Studies show that not more than 50 per cent of the consumer households pay their water bills and this reflects on institutional inefficiency. In almost all the cities — be it Karachi, Lahore or Peshawar — more than ninety per cent of the municipal water connections are unmetered, so you may use or waste as much water as you like. If everyone was made to pay for using water, all households would have access to clean, potable drinking water. This is not an issue of scarcity but of mismanagement. Management can only be done by efficient institutions.
What is institutional efficiency? In governance, the starting point is a legal framework. We don’t have a municipal water act, unlike most civilised countries. We prefer to run the cities on whims, wishes and desires of a few, rather than a sound legal framework of local governance. The water law should define the ownership and regulation of ground water, as currently it’s free for all, including the multinationals and national corporations which are free to draw as much as they want, and package and sell what essentially is a national asset that requires equitable distribution.
In addition to a legal framework that defines the roles, responsibilities and rights, we need a comprehensive institutional design and capitated institutions to regulate the right to provide the services and collect user charges — all basic components of good governance. What ails our water utilities across Pakistan is a set of archaic and useless rules, manned by poorly qualified and inexperienced officers, mostly without any merit or incentives to perform.
A water utility should be a sustainable business entity. Water produced should be sold and money should be recovered for asset maintenance. If the political masters desire to provide subsidised water, there should be an institutional mechanism for the subsidy or else they would economise on asset maintenance and in the medium term, this would lead to rundown infrastructure. And this has happened over the last few decades.
Today, the number of citizens living without piped water and sewerage is higher than what it was 30 years ago. So, where are we heading?
In the rural areas, the establishment is just building assets for rural water supply through PHED model across Pakistan. The government envisaged itself as a performing body, built water supply assets and then handed these over to the rural community/villagers. This scheme was terribly organised and lacked overall management. Consequently, rural water management of the schemes failed due to poverty, non-mobilisation and inadequate support from government; women and girls continue to walk miles to fetch water instead of going to school. The PHED model also disregards what will happen where there is no surface water and ground water is available for drinking purpose; this needs special intervention.
A study conducted by the Urban Unit revealed that only five WASAs in Punjab utilise up to 132 MW of electricity. Through efficient water conservation, energy efficiency and water management up to 20 per cent of the energy can be saved to improve efficiency. This saving can be used for enhancing the service delivery but do we have a policy or the institutional capacity to take this approach?
In Karachi, water supplied in tankers is essentially water that should be in the pipes. There are hundreds of illegal connections that serve agriculture in the outskirts. Improving the public sector water utilities has other vested commercial angles as well. If the WASAs and KWSB start providing quality drinking water, who will buy bottled water and tanker water? We are well-aware of these powerful lobbies, but does the state have the will and muscle to take on this challenge?
The message is loud and clear: If we don’t address the water governance issue today, the day when water would be as scarce as electricity and gas are today is not far. People would be standing in queues for hours to get a bucketful of drinking water, and that is a scary vision of the future.