March 11th, 2020

Water Scarcity and Social Vulnerabilities: A Multi-Dimensional Perspective of Water Challenges in Pakistan

By Zahra Khan Durrani

Durrani JSE March 2020 Water Issue PDF

Link to JSE March 2020 Water and Climate Issue Table of Contents


Abstract: Access to fresh water is every individual’s universal and human right, and it is a key instrument in meeting the sustainable development goals given the important social, economic, and political roles that this natural resource pertains to. But the reality is that millions of people across the globe are suffering because water resources are diminishing. World leaders, researchers, and journalists, have gone as far as to say that water scarcity will be the next probable cause for world conflict (Van Der Molen & Antoinette, 2005). Yet issues regarding the insufficiency of water are not talked about extensively in the world, and the planet turns a blind eye to the global water crisis, assuming it to be a renewable natural resource that nature will keep on recharging. But the truth is, that human demand for ecological resources has been exhausting resources faster than nature has the capacity to replenish them, and if human habits and unsustainable use of resources do not change then global resource crisis, like the present global water scarcity crisis, will surely intensify and  become the leading cause for conflict (Shahid, 2016). One major cause for the lack of mainstreaming of the water crisis is because of its portrayal as a stand-alone issue to the general public, owing greatly to the lack of world governments and their inability to contextualize it as a multi-dimensional problem. This paper highlights the crucial need for adopting a multi-dimensional approach for the dissemination of the problem. It follows an exploratory stance and sheds light on the multipronged social challenges and resulting vulnerabilities associated with water challenges in Pakistan.


Water is not only needed for direct human consumption but it an essential resource for socio-economic development of any nation, as it is a vital requirement for food production, energy generation, and healthy ecosystems that ultimately sustain human survival.

Often conventionally perceived as a scarcity of natural resource, the shortage of water is an absolute hindering factor for development (Blignaut & Heerden, 2009). Dwindling water resources act as a limiting factor for agriculture and industry, and are therefore among the major causes of increasing competition between the agrarian rural and industrial urban areas. As per the United Nation’s Water Development Report 2018, approximately 3.6 billion people around the world are living in areas where water levels are extremely low, or diminishing at a rapid pace. This means that water shortage is threatening the lives of almost 50 percent of the world’s population, who could be facing a major water deficiency in the very near future (UN-Water, 2019).

According to a report by IMF, Pakistan ranks at third place on the list of countries facing the problem of water shortages (International Monetary Fund, 2015). According to another report by Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), the country is at the brink of reaching ‘absolute scarcity’ of water by 2025 (Pakistan Council for Research on Water Resources/US-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies on Water (USPCAS-W), 2016). A holistic study of past environmental trends shows that the Indus Basin has been affected by droughts since the 19th century.

For a third world country like Pakistan, which relies heavily on its agriculture, this means some serious repercussions for the economy and the social prosperity of its people. An increasing population and growing urbanization in Pakistan means that demand for water is rapidly rising, while the supply is mostly stagnant. The limited, and erratic, water supply that is currently available in the country is at serious risk because of the effects of climate change and pollution. If immediate steps are not taken, food and water insecurity will lead to the already vulnerable segments of the society to face hardships and inequalities will further stretch (State Bank of Pakistan, 2017).

The phenomenon of climate change threatens to make matters much worse and frequent than before. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts and floods, that Pakistan continuously faces, threaten food supplies and jeopardizes livelihoods that separates families and/or drives entire households away from their place of residence. All of these effects increase the risk of poverty, hunger, and conflict. Every three in four people that are living in poverty are dependent on agriculture and natural resources for survival. The increased competition over scarce water resources and food, exacerbated by climate change, are a matter of life and death for poor communities  (Schwartz, 2019).

Water as a Social Resource

When water scarcity is seen as an issue facing a society, it surfaces as a scarcity of “social adaptive capacity” – the ability to act collectively in the face of threats – needed to deal with the scarcity of that social resource  (Ohlsson, Appelgren, FAO, & AGLW., 1998).. As water is closely linked to a society’s economic and social prosperity, its absence act as a hindrance to sustainable development.

Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right (UN Water, n.d.). Every single individual in the world, regardless of whether they are poor or affluent, is entitled to this resource which is absolutely essential for human survival and development. While water security as a whole is a global issue, developing countries, which are often characterized by widespread urbanization, human overpopulation, and excessive political interference, are facing the greatest brunt of this problem that has deterred their economic and social development (Brown, Neves-Silva, & Heller, 2016).

Back in 2015, The World Economic Forum announced the water crisis to be the number one impending long term global risk because of its disastrous impact on society  (World Economic Forum, 2015). The 2017 statistical report of Water Aid on “Wild Water: The State of the World’s Water” presents facts about the situation of water availability in the world. According to the report, 522 million, out of the total 663 million people who do not have access to clean water, belong from rural areas. These communities face hardships – inter alia, water borne diseases, malnutrition, and struggle to grow crops and feed livestock – because they either live in isolated locations or because of lack of adequate infrastructure or resources. According to WaterAid, approx. 315,000 deaths of under-five children are reported each year as a result of water borne diseases (WaterAid, 2017).

When seen from an anthropological perspective, water scarcity is not just a problem of depletion of a natural resource but also a depletion of a social resource. Since water is the core element needed for running households, agricultural and industrial practices, unavailability of this key resource halts development and affects vast portions of the social life of both an individual and/or a community (Orlove & and Caton, 2010).

Water scarcity not only causes a decrease in economic activity, but it is also the reason behind the increasing conflict between societies, and competition between the rural and urban regions. A lack or inability of adaptive capacity to save water from being thrown into the sea, or the inability to treat waste water, poses more strain on the already scarce water available for domestic consumption. This paper highlights the plethora of ways in which the unavailability of clean water affects social life, and how the resource itself has been a cause for increasing inequalities in societies.

Water and Health

It becomes very difficult to propagate information about Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) to the masses as a preventive strategy against illness from water-borne diseases in particular, when every drop of that water is hard won through the use of labour and energy – from journeying several miles on foot in the scorching heat, to raising water from wells some 200 feet deep  (Concern Worldwide, 2017).

With droughts prevailing, sometimes several years at a stretch, in various regions of Pakistan, one of the major challenges faced by the populations is that of malnutrition and deteriorating health as a result of the consumption of polluted water, which has been for the most part a result of the shortage of water and the increased competition over it for use in multiple different sectors.  The quality of water currently available to the masses has never been this low (UN Environment, 2019).

Globally, lack of clean water and proper sanitation facilities result in approx. one million deaths each and every year – A child dies every ninety seconds from having been exposed to a waterborne disease, with diarrhea being the leading cause of death  (, 2017).

Water pollution poses a very serious threat to Pakistan where even the ground water in many locations across the country contains heavy traces of arsenic. Water pollution in the country has increased, and most health problems prevailing in Pakistan are in some way, directly or indirectly, linked to poor water quality (Ahmad, et al., 2017). Industrial waste in large cities, excessive coal mining in various parts of the country and overexploitation of ground water are a major causes of water pollution and leading cause of health related issues (Mahmood & Shaheen, 2019). The presence of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, dangerous pesticides, municipal industrial waste, and untreated sewage water have been causing widespread waterborne illnesses in Pakistan  (Soomro, Khokhar, Hussain, & Hussain, 2019).

Over 60 per cent of diseases in a developing country like Pakistan are a direct result of the consumption of contaminated drinking water, and millions do not have access to better sanitation facilities that could help prevent these. 13.6% of the deaths are due to waterborne diseases – like typhoid, dysentery, diarrhea and cholera – which are not simply social causalities, but are also liabilities that affect the economic development of the country  (Rehman & Baig, 2017).

Food Security and Livelihood

Agriculture, and the industry around it, holds critical importance to Pakistan, with it being the second largest economic sector in the country. The sector employs around 42 per cent of the entire working labour force, and ensures food security for the masses. The agriculture sector is also highly reliant on water, making Pakistan the biggest consumer of water in the world. But since several years ago, agricultural productivity has been very low, owing to climate change impacts of reduced and untimely rainfall, and ultimately water scarcity (The Express Tribune, 2018).  A decreased agricultural output due to water shortage is, and will further, force the poor rural farmers in the country to migrate to urban areas, which will further increase the percentage of urban unemployment (Development Advocate Pakistan, 2016).

Pakistan currently ranks as one of the most food insecure countries in Asia according to the Global Food and Security Index. The beginning of 2018 saw a 45 per cent average decrease in rainfall from the average levels, and the dry conditions that the country has been witnessing, mostly in the south, have caused serious water stress for the agriculture sector, especially affecting Kharif crops – crops like rice, sugar cane, cotton, maize and millet that are cultivated in the monsoon season. The rising food insecurity has been a burden on Pakistan’s human resources. Water and Food stress has been taking a toll on women’s health, and has been the cause of undernourishment in children (Psaki, et al., 2012). According to a report by Unicef, an estimate half of the Pakistani population has been experiencing malnutrition. The country has a high rate of malnutrition among children where 15 per cent of children under-five are acutely malnourished. Prevalence of under-five stunted growth rate stands at 44 per cent, which is much higher than the global average. These statistics have not changed much since 1965, which is alarming. There has been numerous cases of extreme and violent behavior among individuals that continue to suffer because of poverty and hunger. This is especially true for young men, belonging from urban slums in metropolitan cities like Karachi, who become members of a mob or armed gang as a resort to provide for their families due to social alienation and failure of market to provide them economic opportunities (Hasan & Mohib, 2003).  With a large per cent of Pakistani population already food and nutrient insecure, water scarcity issues will only make things worse for the already vulnerable (Rehman & Baig, 2017)

Increasing Inequalities and Decreasing National Harmony

Today, global economic activities are less geographically concentrated and more ‘dispersed across production networks that connect metropolitan areas’ all around the world. According to Hans Rosling, the face of income inequality in the 21st century is one where discrepancies exist at the local level – causing increasing inequalities within countries. Unevenly distributed growth is likely to intensify these divisions with the rapid advancement in technology and changes in urbanization (Verbeek & Rodarte, 2015).

According to a comprehensive study, widespread inequality within and between the provinces in Pakistan are contributed greatly due to ‘skewed distribution of cultivable land and lack of regressively in the distribution of irrigation across different farm size groups’ (Gill & Sampath, 1992). For most developing countries that are agrarian in nature, mismanagement of irrigation systems coupled with water scarcity issues, means that inequalities will persist, and continue to rise, as long as water challenges are not catered to.

The former Chairman of the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), Mr. Shamsul Mulk, is of the view that lack of attention to the water issues has resulted in the absence of an efficient water policy, and policymakers have always been like ‘absentee landlords’ and because of this “…water has become the property of the landlords and the poor are deprived of their share”  (UNDP Pakistan, 2016).

As previously stated, lack of access to clean drinking water is a human rights concern, and acts as a limiting factor to development. Simultaneously, it also results in the widening divide between social classes, across and within borders as the worlds freshwater resources are unevenly distributed (FAO, 2007).

When we take Pakistan as an example, we learn that 21 million people across the country are deprived of access to clean drinking water. The continuously evolving water crisis is leading to an increase in the social class divide – where 79 per cent of the poor do not have access to drinking water near their homes, while 98 per cent of the richest people do. Even though WASH  situation has improved and 44 million people across the country have been provided with access to water since 2000, we see that while the wealthy ones have benefitted, every  one in five poor still faces difficulty in obtaining access to clean water (Haider, n.d.).

For water scarce developing countries like Pakistan, where differences among provinces is already a major concern, water challenges poses great threat to national harmony. Water distribution between the different provinces is managed according to an agreement of the regions that was signed in 1991 under the Indus River System Authority. Under the agreement, eighty two per cent of the total extracted groundwater is used in Punjab, while only eight percent is given to Sindh and one per cent to Balochistan.  Despite the fact that Balochistan and Sindh receive the least amount of rainfall, and experience frequent drought like conditions, these regions get the least share of water. The water that is made available to these two provinces is of poor quality that is unfit for consumption  (Siegmann & Shezad, 2006). Other factors that make the percentage divide of water unfair is due to variations in temperature, topography, available ground water, evaporation rates and irrigation systems in various parts of the country. The inequality that arises further translates into other sectors like food production and argi-based economic activities because other than Punjab, the rest of the regions have not been getting a fair share of water.

Thirty nine per cent of the total Pakistani population has access to safe drinking water, and people living in rural areas face the most brunt of water challenges. Balochistan and Sindh province have been facing severe droughts due to water shortages. According to the Quetta Water and Sanitation Authority, the capital of Balochistan, Quetta, is currently facing a water shortage of approximately 20 million gallons a day. While some areas are suffering from water shortage because of climate and topography, others are suffering because of poor governance and water management. People of Karachi face difficulty in obtaining water for every day consumption because of excess urbanization and shortages of clean water, while at the same time water worth 21 billion dollars, that could have been used by those people, washes away into the sea every year owing to lack of proper management and conservation systems in the country. The quality of water is another big problem for Pakistan where groundwater has high level of arsenic in it  (Jamal, 2018).

Water and Gender

Water scarcity is not only a cause for rising inequalities among the social classes, but is also contributing to the rising inequalities between the sexes (Parker, et al., 2016). The impacts of climate change do not affect everyone equally. Women disproportionately bear the greater portion of the burden of the impacts of climate change which are often aggravated in times of conflict and political instability. Natural disasters increase women’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation and exposure to violence, because of structural inequalities present in societies that deny them agency over resources and finances that keeps them vulnerable (Bradshaw & Fordham, 2013). Women bear the greater burden of climate change impacts because of their traditional roles of caretakers and providers of food, water and family welfare within the households, and work responsibilities mostly confined to agriculture labour. They also suffer more because they have limited access to land, property and finances. When crops are damaged because of climate change, they have limited opportunities to make a living. Addressing all negative gender norms in every scope of programming, whether it be livelihoods, nutrition, water management etc. are critical in order to avoid conflicts, because if women do not have agency, control or the decision making power on the resources handed over to them, those investments cannot be maximized  (Khan, 2018).

In developing countries, women play a crucial role in the management of water but it is rarely ever translated in policies because their efforts and contributions are rarely ever acknowledged. This is especially true for South Asia. A typical day of a woman living in the rural areas of Pakistan involves her active participation in agricultural practices, and other supplementary activities to agriculture- the sector that makes use of 90 per cent of all fresh water available to Pakistan  (Begum & Yasmeen, 2011). After working countless hours in the fields, she then holds the responsibility of providing for her family – from cleaning, cooking and collecting water from far-off places. These ‘unofficial water managers’ perform numerous everyday activities that revolve around the use of water. Unavailability of water near their homes means that women are burdened with excessive responsibilities, which is true in most cases for women living in rural parts of Balochistan and Sindh province who travel on foot as far as four kilometers every single day to fetch water as parts of the country has been experiencing drought like situations since years (Ahmad & Sharif, 2012).

Children, especially girls, accompany women in carrying water, which means that they miss school to help meet family needs. This paints a scenario that has much broader impact of water scarcity, one that traps the most vulnerable, especially women, in a vicious cycle of inescapable poverty. Water availability and its quality has direct implications on the lives of women, and given the important role that they play in their communities, the impact that water challenges have on their wellbeing will continue to have an impact on the livelihood of rural people, and ultimately on the economic development of the country. Therefore, women’s effort and hardships should be considered in policy and planning because of the hardships they face as the gender most affected by water scarcity.

Water and the Younger Generations

The demographic perhaps most affected by changes in the environment, are the next generation. One of the major dilemmas in Pakistan at the moment is that it has one of the world’s largest proportion of young people in the world – a population that falls between the ages of 18 and 33 – and yet, according to a national survey, this segment is also considered to be the most ‘stressed out’ in the country (National Human Development Report: Unleashing the Potential of a Young Pakistan, 2017). The absence of impactful youth development policies and also proper development apparatus has already resulted in, and reinforced, a general sense of hopelessness about this demographics’ economic future in Pakistan (Majeed, 2018).

For a country whose population is comprised of more than 64 per cent young people, and is also considered to be the fifth youngest nation in the world, this is an extremely alarming situation. This despondency is further going to be aggravated due to the rapidly growing climate variability that affects both the availability and quality of water, and also impacts social stability. It will further jeopardize employment opportunities available to the country’s youth (UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme, 2017).

The ambiguous future of Pakistan’s youth as a result of rising unemployment is evident by the country’s performance in the Youth Development Index (YDI). Where the overall general global trend has been positive, Pakistan has moved from the middle category YDI to a lower category in the span of only 5 years, from 2010 to 2015. Furthermore, according to the latest National Human Development Report, the country ranks 154 out of 183 countries in the Global Youth Development Index and Report 2017. This ‘survival of the fittest’ culture that already exists in society for the young populace, thrusts them into a biased competition amongst themselves. Those considered the ‘fittest’ of society with their ‘suitable’ socio-economic backgrounds and wealth are able to take tremendous advantage of the learning and skill development opportunities.  Meanwhile, young people belonging to semi-arid or arid drought stricken regions of Pakistan, who already lack even the most basic opportunities for employment, will stay less privileged by default.

When we take a look at the different segments within the country’s youth, women and girls are often not exclusively targeted by policy makers, leaving them to face the brunt of an absence of even the most basic facilities and, subsequently, lower economic prospects. Everything considered, environmental stresses can further lead to widespread social unrest in the near future (Durrani, 2018).

Water Scarcity and Migration

As the world is becoming warmer, dry regions are become drier and wet regions, wetter (Earth Institute, 2017). All over the world incidences like wild fires, flooding, droughts among other disasters have been forcing communities out of their homes. People have made seasonal or circular migrations as a way of life – majority of these people belong from rural agricultural backgrounds who migrate in search for employment and return home when season is right for crop production activities. Pakistan is one such developing country that comprises of mostly dry and arid land, where livelihoods are dependent on agriculture.

Scarcity of water shakes the entire social fabric of communities – as it leads to food, health and economic insecurities – and compels people into conflict over scarce resources and forces them to migrate out of their home regions (Amir & Habib, 2015). If we look at examples of Balochistan and Sindh provinces of Pakistan, lengthy dry spells have led the rural population in these areas to migrate to barrage areas in order to gain employment to provide food and water for their families and livestock.

Continuous drought incidences have impacted Pakistan greatly. Presently, moderate to severe drought conditions are prevailing in the parts of Southwest Balochistan, Southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Southeast Sindh, and Southern Punjab since last five years at least (OCHA, 2018). Sindh and Balochistan province are the most affected by recurring droughts, so much so that the situation is rapidly taking shape as one of the worst natural disasters that Pakistan has ever witnessed. Upland areas of these affected provinces have witnessed minimal to no summer rainfalls leading to severe shortage of water resources and drying up of tube wells and springs, resulting in the underground water table to drop in the low lying regions and valleys.

According to Pakistan Meteorological Department, 33 percent of the population from districts Chagai, Noshki, Kharan and Washuk have migrated out of their regions (Islamic Relief , 2019). Likewise, communities from Chitral district, that is one of the worst affected districts by climate change impacts, have been forced to migrate out of their regions because the area has become water scarce and infertile. 85 families migrated from snow-capped region of Rerioveer in upper Chitral of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to lower Chitral region, owing to unavailability of water. For the same reason, around 200 families from Mori Lusht village in Koh Union Council have shifted to Chitral. The prevailing condition in the whole of Chitral has resulted in an economic crisis for its native people who have no source of income and no school expenses for their children (PPI, 2018). People in Gilgit-Baltistan have been also been forced to migrate due to frequent torrential rains and flash floods.

There are future projections that if current rate of increase in sea levels continues, Karachi city would be completely submerged by 2060, and Thatta and Badin districts could be submerge by 2050 (Butt, 2015). Similarly, parts of the Balochistan province, especially District Badin, has been impacted by climate change in the form of extreme sea intrusion as far as 85km up the fresh water channels, causing extreme water shortage for consumption. Thousands of people have migrated away from this area as agricultural production has decreased from 82,200 ha in 2001–2002 to 61,900 ha in 2016 (Oxfam, 2017).

Extreme weather events have had a severe impact on Pakistan’s agriculture sector and therefore on food security which is a leading cause of migration. The people of Tharparkar region, which is prone to frequent droughts, continue to suffer problems of chronic malnutrition as a result of food and water unavailability and abundance of disease among livestock that emerge as a result of these insecurities. The prolonged drought in Tharparkar region resulted in the deaths of 257 children in only the first quarter of 2019 (Butt, 2015) and has become an example of how water scarcity is capable of causing humanitarian disasters. An estimate of approx. 45 per cent of the rural population of Thar has been forced to migrate due to these reasons (Torres & Alvarez, 2015).

In Balochistan approx. 70 per cent of the population has migrated from Kulanch Ambi village in Gawadar, and also from rural areas like Pasni, for the same reasons. The province which used to have the underground Karez water supply system – an indigenous method of irrigation system in which groundwater is extracted through a sloping underground tunnel/channel that transports water from an aquifer to the surface through a series of vertical access shafts – have all been dried up or collapsed (Kaleem & Ahmad, 2018).

A World Bank report outlines how “episodes of droughts and floods have generated waves of migration and statistical spikes in violence within countries.” Sindh and Balochistan are already proof of the devastation that droughts brings with them. And if the situation prevails, it will continue to spark social conflicts and force migration (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank, 2016)

Climate Variability and Water

The phenomenon of climate change threatens to make matters much worse and frequent than before. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts and floods, that Pakistan continuously faces, threaten food supplies and jeopardizes livelihoods that separates families and/or drives entire households away from their place of residence. All of these effects increase the risk of poverty, hunger, and conflict. Every three in four people that are living in poverty are dependent on agriculture and natural resources for survival. The increased competition over scarce water resources and food, exacerbated by climate change, are a matter of life and death for poor communities  (Schwartz, 2019).

Although availability of clean drinking water is the most immediate threat to human wellbeing, shortage of water have far reaching consequences, as highlighted in this article. As water in the rivers and streams diminish, they can become vulnerable to contagions as concentration of harmful pollutants can increase. As water resources diminishes wild animals may move to, and inhabit, areas near community settlements, drinking the water that humans consume and putting them at risk of catching disease carrying insects that the animals may host.

Impacts of climate change have led to severity of the water problems throughout the world, but more so for developing countries like Pakistan where a significant proportion of people live in rural areas where their livelihoods are dependent on agriculture. Climate change impacts have resulted in a loss of agricultural productivity which has severely affected community livelihoods, posing high risk of intensifying the process of urbanisation and permanant migrations. Rural poverty is highly associated with ones access to land and resources, the absence of these can trigger rural to urban migration.

As water insecurity rises- that is made worse by climate variability – droughts will become more frequent, and regions that have never had droughts are going to see a drop in their resources in the coming 35 years (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2016).


The water issue has been ignored for far too long, and we cannot afford to shelve it any longer. A warmer climate has now become unavoidable, but how we respond to climate change and related challenges like water scarcity will determine the magnitude of the costs and consequences that the world will face. For developing nations like Pakistan that lacks resources, resilience to disasters, and good governance, the stress that increasing water insecurity will bring will shake the country’s stability and stir conflicts.

As evident from this compilation, water scarcity has implications far beyond what is disseminated to the general public. At a time when the world has just started to come to terms with the haunting reality of water scarcity hovering over the prospects of stability in its economic, humanitarian and developmental spheres, the need to effectively engage in the enterprise of water security has become increasingly relevant. In relevance to this study, efforts are needed to ensure water efficiency across all sectors and to reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity through the participation of local communities. It must be reiterated that though the idea of water security is not a recent one, countries like Pakistan have been unable to contextualize it. Special focus needs to be given to this issue in order to fully attend to the multi-dimensional problem that it is for countries like Pakistan, and for the rest of the world.



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