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Pakistan’s water woes: A ticking time bomb

By Saadia Ali
February 4 2013




Terrorism, religious intolerance and Pak-US relations are often in the media spotlight – but water shortages, perhaps the greatest threat to Pakistan’s survival, is an issue that remains largely untouched.

Pakistan has been a victim of severe natural disasters and health crises – from annual flooding, to a rise in water borne diseases, to high rates of infant mortality because of contaminated water and low agricultural output.

Yet with drone strikes, the Afghan war, and pressure to partake in the ‘War on Terror’,  scarce funds keep getting diverted to the military while those for the health, education and water sectors continue to shrivel up.

The figures that indicate how urgent the situation is however, are astounding. According to a report titled “Running on empty: Pakistan’s water crisis” (edited by Michael Kugelman and Robert M Hathway), anywhere from 40 to 55 million Pakistanis do not have access to safe drinking water.

Combined with intensive irrigation and poor drainages, the shortage is accompanied by waterlogging and soil salinity in Pakistan’s rural areas, causing extensive damage to valuable agricultural land.

Some areas are particularly badly affected. Kugelman’s report indicates that since large amounts of water have been diverted upstream in Punjab to satisfy a burgeoning population’s demand for agricultural goods, livelihoods in Sindh have suffered the brunt of this diversion.

The Indus delta therefore, according to a Pakistani environmentalist, is suffering from severe degradation. This has led to an unfortunate mix of coastal poverty and great damage to the delta’s entire ecosystem.

A solution?

It is obvious, therefore, that water shortages in the country is a serious issue that has to be dealt with sooner or later. Enter Marco Ganouna, CEO of Water Production Systems (WPS); a man who may have the answer to these problems.

Before he can be asked anything, Ganouna asked a curious question himself.

“Do you like to cook?” After receiving affirmation, he said, “So do I, but I keep my ingredients basic.”

“Being simple is a very complicated thing,” Ganouna added, before explaining why he used the analogy: the mission of the WPS is to provide developing countries with means of clean water through a customised business model – and he believes the trick is to keep it simple.

What the WPS has done is to develop an advanced air-to-water technology which provides clean water across the globe, whether it’s through desalination, purification or reverse osmosis.

“The quantity of water in the world will always stay the same, but the quality of the water changes. The population is increasing; thus, the need for more clean water. However, if you manage it well, there is enough water to feed the growing population,” he assured.

The WPS model

WPS works on a simple model – once they are provided the necessary information from either the local authorities or government bodies managing water, they aim to provide solutions within 3-4 weeks’ time.

The data they require covers a spectrum: the number of people, the purpose of the clean water (for example, whether it’s for farming needs or domestic use), and the distance of the location from the water source.

Once the groundwork is done, WPS installs a water station as close to the consumption point as possible – this minimises the risk of leaks, and hence contamination, before the water reaches one’s tap.

“We are looking at those areas that nobody bothers to look at,” Ganouna explained, adding that the WPS is currently in talks with local authorities in Indonesia, China, Brunei and India for providing clean water to rural areas.

Tackling Pakistan’s water shortage

The WPS CEO explained how Indian Punjab is suffering serious consequences as a result of contaminated water: cities and villages feed from the same chemical and bacteria infested water which flows out, unregulated, as waste from flourishing industries along the river banks.

“The scenario is absolutely the same in rural Pakistan,” Ganouna said.

But this scenario can be fixed, he added. According to the CEO, his study of the Punjab in India revealed that by treating water in villages, there was an immediate positive social impact: new jobs were created, there was a rise in agricultural productivity, the levels of the water table increased, and each person saved $4.30 per month in healthcare.

With a multide of awards and 30 years of experience in the hi-tech industry to his name, Ganouna, an American, oftens travel to Asia for work. When asked about a hypothetical scenario of providing water to one million people in rural Pakistan, the CEO came back to his original point: “The solution is very simple”.

Ganouna explained that according to the UN, an average person needs 50 litres of water daily for drinking and domestic use, which means one million people need around 50 million litres. “We’re looking at a cost of $0.30 – $1.50 per 1000 litres,” he conjectures, adding, “And about 6-10 months for us to make the water available to your one million people.”

The WPS chief went even further. “If I were to be given the task of providing safe drinking water to the majority of the Pakistani population along with adequate resources to do it and a real ‘carte blanche’ from the government, we would reach that goal within five years,” he promised.

Why Pakistan’s needs are urgent

Pakistan is lingering just above the water scarcity limit of 1,000 cubic metres per capita and the next few decades can see this figure falling by half. A global water shortage ‘bomb’ is ticking away – and slowly, it’s making its way to Pakistan.

Such a calamity would cause as much damage, if not more, than an all-out war.

Karachi, for example, epitomises just how dangerous the lack of clean water can be. Water flowing through the city contains lead, chromium and cyanide. More metals have been found in Karachi’s harbour than in any other major world harbour, according to Kugelman’s report.

On top of this excessive population is global warming, which has caused massive reductions in the frozen areas of the Himalayas, thereby slashing the volume of annual snowmelts and water in the Indus River system.

But whether climate changes or a population explosion are the main culprit, what is obvious is that a lack of clean water has not only caused Pakistan’s fields to be drier, but for lives to be lost.

With this kind of critical shortage at hand, it’s time to look at alternative solutions, whether it’s Ganouna’s WPS or something else that could provide a thirsty population with necessary respite.

Originally published by Dawn Pakistan

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