Pakistan’s unending predicament
DESTINED to be a citadel of peace and prosperity and land of pure, Pakistan today is facing one of its worst security and economic crises, deep political divide, run-away inflation, rampant corruption, alarming levels of unemployment and deteriorating balance of payment issues along with growing fiscal deficit, misgovernance and mounting debt-both internal and external. The country’s foreign exchange reserves have fallen to about $3 billion which can cover only less than a month’s worth of imports. Inflation has risen to 36.4%, meaning people cannot afford basic necessities including healthcare. Devastating floods last year submerged much of the country under water due to lack of preparations in advance and timely relief measures. The bottom line is that Pakistan is in deep and real crises, never seen before.
Among the many problems the country is facing, the first and the foremost is the acute water crisis. This crisis will not only affect Pakistan’s agriculture sector which contributes to 23 percent of Pakistan’s GDP and employs 42 percent of its labour force, but also it will take the form of an existential threat to energy and food security and, therefore, national security. In a recent report, “Water Crisis in Pakistan: Manifestation, Causes and the Way Forward,” published by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) sheds some light on the gravity of the issue by adducing eye-opening statistics. Pakistan ranks 14 out of 17 “extremely high water risk” countries in the world, as the country wastes one-third of water available. More than 80 percent of the country’s population faces “severe water scarcity.” Water availability in Pakistan has plummeted from 5,229 cubic meters per inhabitant in 1962 to just 1,187 in 2017.
One indicator highlighting the seriousness of the issue is the water withdrawal rate which can be defined as the amount of water withdrawn from a source (surface or groundwater). Note that this is different from water consumption which is the portion of withdrawn water that has been permanently lost as it was consumed (evaporated, used by plants or humans, etc.). Pakistan has been ranked 160th, better than only 18 countries, in terms of water withdrawals to water resource ratio. Moreover, the country treats only one per cent of wastewater, one of the lowest rates in the world. Around 40 percent of water in Pakistan is lost due to spillage, seepage, side leakage and bank cuttings along with irregular profiling of alignment of banks. Agriculture is the largest consumer of water; 97 percent of Pakistan’s freshwater is used by this sector. The water crisis is putting the largest sector of the country’s economy at risk. Besides water deficiency and drought, there are other issues like water-logging and salinity affecting Pakistan’s crops which are responsible for 60 percent of the agriculture sector’s contribution to GDP. An estimated shortage of around 70 million tons of food is expected by 2025.
Additionally, 30 per cent of Pakistan’s land is expected to be waterlogged while 13 percent is saline. When coupled together with the overarching issue of growing water scarcity, one can see an existential threat to the country in the offing. Crop productivity is affected by water availability. This will impact cotton which plays a pivotal role in the backbone of the country’s textile industry. Sugar is another crop that requires sufficient amounts of water and so does wheat. Pakistan’s population is expected to exceed 380 million by 2050, according to a UN report. Moreover, by 2025 the demand for water in Pakistan is expected to reach 274 million acre feet (MAF) as compared to 191 MAF supply of water.
Pakistan also continues to face multiple sources of internal and external conflict. Extremism and intolerance of diversity and dissent have grown, fuelled by a narrow vision of Pakistan’s political leaders which is threatening the country’s prospects for social cohesion and stability. The inability of state institutions to reliably provide peaceful ways to resolve grievances has encouraged groups to seek violence as an alternative. The country saw peaceful political transitions after the 2013 and 2018 elections, though. However, as the country prepares for anticipated elections in 2023, it continues to face a fragile economy along with deepening domestic polarization. Meanwhile, devastating flooding across Pakistan in 2022 has caused billions in damage, strained the country’s agriculture and health sectors and also laid bare Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate disasters and troubling weaknesses in governance and economic stability.
Hostile neighbours pose a threat to regional and international security. The real cause of conflict-Kashmir issue, still remains unsolved and un-resolved which necessitates military buildup and preparedness. The country can no longer depend on USA due to past failures. The people largely do not trust America as there is a general feeling in the masses that the US is not a reliable friend. The presence and influence of China, as a great power and close ally of Pakistan, has the potential to ameliorate the many regional and international difficulties, Pakistan is facing in the region.
But the real issues which have remained unattended and not seriously pursued are that of corruption, wrong economic policies and misplaced priorities which have brought the country to this situation. Political expediency was chosen as priority and given preference over necessity, maturity and reality. Focus was on short-term achievements rather than long term goals. Raising finances through costly foreign loans, (which always come with strings attached) was adopted and taken as a standard prescription rather than a measure of last resort.
The IMF and World Bank loans which always come with their standard prescription of raising electricity and gas prices pushed up these inputs to a level where it is simply not viable for industrialists to operate with the result that many have either closed down or relocated to other countries, thereby pushing up local unemployment, poverty and misery. Break down of law and order as well as street crimes are natural causes which we are witnessing today. Our balance of trade and balance of payments dilemma is a serious cause of concern. Sadly and unfortunately the option of reducing government expenditure has never been taken as the top priority option and hence the result is before us. Wish this important aspect should have been taken as top priority.
—The writer is Former Civil Servant and Consultant (ILO) & International Organisation for Migration.
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