Pakistan’s water supplies are not only over-stressed, but also of increasingly poor quality. An analysis published by the World Bank in August 2019, highlighted the importance of water quality, especially with respect to its effect on economic growth. It found that global surveillance of water quality is severely lacking, despite the importance of water quality to human health and food production. The analysis also found that economic growth is stifled, by up to one-third, in the most heavily polluted areas. The findings are particularly important in countries such as Pakistan, where an estimated 40 per cent of deaths are due to poor water quality.
Pakistan’s water crisis goes beyond just physical scarcity and lack of availability; its water resources are also heavily polluted. More than two-thirds of households drink bacterially contaminated water and water-borne diseases, such as cholera and dysentery, are common. Similarly, only 56 per cent of Pakistanis have access to safe drinking water, while 30 per cent of diseases and 40 per cent of deaths are linked to unclean water. The situation is worse in rural Pakistan, where 70 per cent of the population has no access to clean water at all.
In urban Pakistan, domestic wastewater is responsible for the majority of water pollution. Though some planned developments may have sewage systems in place to remove household wastewater, a lack of treatment facilities means that this waste is usually dumped into streams, ponds or drains. Industrial pollution also significantly contributes to both surface and groundwater contamination. Most heavy industries have no means to treat wastewater and consequently deposit pollutants into either sewage networks or drains. Agricultural runoff has also contributed to the degradation of Pakistan’s surface water.
With much of the country’s surface water polluted by waste, most (70 per cent) of Pakistan’s drinking water comes from aquifers. Throughout the country, 89 per cent of groundwater is unfit for consumption, due to contamination by pesticides, industrial effluent, heavy metals (especially arsenic, which occurs naturally around the Indus Basin) and bacterial contaminants. Bacterial contamination is especially widespread in rural areas.
As a largely agrarian country, much of Pakistan’s water use is geared towards agriculture. The use of wastewater in irrigation is common and presents another set of health challenges. By using wastewater to irrigate crops, however, farmers can reduce the amount of water they must extract from already scarce resources. Untreated water also tends to contain a number of nutrients, such as nitrogen and potassium, which can increase agricultural yields – so much so that Pakistani farmers are willing to pay up to 200 per cent more for wastewater than for ordinary irrigation water. Wastewater irrigation has consequences for crop quality, however. It can carry high levels of heavy metals and, when used for irrigation, they build up in the soil. This, in turn, causes metals to build up in the crops themselves and reduces yields over time. Households that farm with wastewater also face significantly higher risks of bacterial infection than those that do not.
The total costs of healthcare due to poor sanitation, contaminated water, lost work time due to water-related illness and early mortality, are responsible for economic losses three times greater than those related to water scarcity, salinity and flood damage combined. By improving its water quality, Pakistan can not only improve the health of its citizens, but also the health of its economy.