Pak’s Underground Water Polluted With Arsenic, 50 Mn At Risk
Contamination is particularly worrying as Pakistan is unusually dependant , vast underground natural reservoir.
More than 50 million people in Pakistan are at risk of arsenic poisoning from contaminated groundwater. That’s according to a study recently published in the journal , based on samples from 1,200 wells across the country. Arsenic cannot be removed from groundwater through common processes such as boiling or filtration – instead it requires expensive procedures such as reverse osmosis, which are beyond the reach of most poor people.
Contamination is particularly worrying in this case as Pakistan is unusually dependant on a single, vast underground natural reservoir known as the . The aquifer covers an area of 160,000km² – making it slightly larger than England – and spans Pakistan’s border with India.
Arsenic contamination may not even be the most alarming thing about the aquifer, however. At current rates of groundwater mining, there is considerable risk the wells will eventually run dry.
Both Pakistan and India have historically subsidised electricity and diesel for running agricultural wells that tap into the aquifer.
Groundwater users only pay for the energy used to mine the resource; the water itself is not metered or priced. The aquifer is literally free for anyone to tap into by drilling a well – whether it is for agricultural, industrial or domestic purposes.
Where Water Goes?
More than 300 millio people live in the largely agricultural and extensively irrigated Indus basin. Of the total water used for irrigation, comes from the aquifer below ground, rather than rainwater or the river itself and its various tributaries.
There are irrigation canals, but their flow is concentrated in the summer monsoon period, and isn’t as readily available as groundwater.
Despite increased concerns over groundwater use, governments on both sides of the border have been encouraging farmers to produce and export water-intensive food crops and livestock products. Given from a fast-diminishing aquifer is needed to produce everything from a grain of rice to a slab of beef, this trade amounts to “virtual water” exports.
“Virtual water” refers to water embedded in trade products. A country that exports rice is in effect also exporting the water that is used to grow rice. This is why water-starved countries such as Saudia Arabia have stopped growing products like wheat. Importing food instead essentially means they “import” water rather than using their own scarce reserves.
Key exports from India and Pakistan including rice, sugar, cotton and textiles all require lots of water to produce.
In addition, both governments are incentivising the growth of meat exports through the use of , without considering the water footprint. Pakistan’s halal meat export trade has grown in the past decade, for instance – mainly to water-scarce countries such as Saudi Arabia.
A Finite Resource
In Pakistan, however, unlicensed drilling continues. The current legal framework for groundwater is spread across a variety of instruments both from colonial and post-colonial times, as well as local customs that often conflict with each other.
Property rights are largely defined by an archaic piece of colonial legislation, the , which allows landowners to effectively collect and dispose of underground water as long as it is not a part of a public irrigation network.
Most of the elaborate state irrigation bureaucracy serves to manage and distribute surface water – not the aquifer. India has recently established a , but in Pakistan, monitoring and management still happens in silos, with no particular institution taking responsibility for the conservation of the resource.
(This article was first published on The Conversation and has been republished with permission.)
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