By Mustafa Z Paras & Ata ul Haq
Working as Chairman PCRWR, Dr. Aslam is extensively engaged in a number of projects of water quality in Pakistan. He got Ph.D degree from Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan. He is serving PCRWR for the last over 26 years while remaining on various senior positions. In recognition of his invaluable services, he was conferred the President’s Medal for Technology, Star Award, Gold Medals (by Tehreek-e-Istehqam-e-Pakistan Council and Zakariyan Chemist Organization). He has already done high profile assignments in Japan, Jordan, Paris, and as a resource person of various international organisations like UNICEF, UNDP, WHO, UNESCO, USGS, USAID, KOICA, INWRDAM, DFID and JICA. He is also the author of two internationally recognised books.
Tell us about PCRWR?
Dr. Aslam Tahir: The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) was established in 1964, but its present name was given to it in 1985, as previously it was named as Irrigation, Drainage and Flood Control Research Council working under the Ministry of Natural Resources. It was brought under the control of Ministry of Science and Technology in 1970. The Council was renamed as Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) in 1985. In 2007 the parliament approved the act of PCRWR. This autonomous body was established with the objective to conduct, organize, coordinate and promote research in all aspects of water resources. Since its inception, PCRWR has played its role as a national research organisation by undertaking and promoting applied as well as basic research in various disciplines of water sector, more specifically, irrigation, drainage, surface and groundwater management, groundwater recharge, watershed management, desertification control, rainwater harvesting, water quality assessment and monitoring, and development of innovative water resource management, conservation and quality improvement technologies.
It is generally said Pakistan is a water deficient country. Is that true?
Quite to an extent as we have not developed our water resources like rest of the world. At present Pakistan is included in a list of 37 countries which have not enough water, but we have reached this stage over the years as at the time of independence we were water rich country. At that time the per capita water availability was 5600 cubic meters which has declined to 1000 cubic meters by 2011. The growth rate with which our population is increasing it will come to 800 cubic meters by 2020.
Is the population growth alone responsible for this decline?
It is one of the reasons but there are other important reasons like not developing at all our abundant water resources, which has further reduced our chances of economic prosperity. With the increasing population you need more food to cater to the requirements of the people. More water is required for irrigation and industries to meet the rising demand. This requires investment in developing water infrastructure which unfortunately has not happened here. For example look at our capital city, Islamabad; it has a population of 1 million people but still the municipal authorities barely able to meet the water requirements of the city. If you look at the underground water table it has dropped significantly over the years. When Islamabad was established in 1961 the water table was just 15 feet below now the people have to bore more than 250 feet to get water and even in some cases upto 400 feet. Same is the case with Lahore where water table was gone down more than 200 feet. In Quetta the situation is even worse as the water table has fallen to 1200 feet.
What is the solution?
In Pakistan, over the years, we have not managed to develop water storage. We just store only 9 percent of the available water. For the most part of the country monsoon rains is the basic source of water but unfortunately we have not developed any mechanism to store this huge resource during the rainfall season. That is why our per capita water availability is estimated to decline to less than 800 cubic meters after 2025 when our population will increase from 180 million to over 220 million. As far as water storage is concerned we are far below our neighbours. India and Iran have made good efforts to develop water storage. India has a storage capacity of 33 percent. In Iran they are developing 45 big reservoirs and India is developing 11 new large dams. China is developing 77 big dams. Turkey is developing 60 new reservoirs. A water rich country Japan is developing 44 new water storage projects. Big reservoirs are those that are at least 200 feet higher than the bed level. No country can develop without developing its water storage facilities as they allow you to regulate water releases for irrigation purposes and help produce one of the most affordable electricity.
Is Pakistan developing some big reservoir?
We are just working on developing the Bhasha Diamir Dam. We have many other sites available for major reservoirs but at present we are working on one big project. When Bhasha Diamir Dam gets completed with full storage capacity, our surface water storage will improve about 14%. We need more large dams to increase water availability for irrigation and hydel power generation. They will also help in controlling floods. The economic benefits of reservoirs are huge that’s why all the developing countries are focused on initiating new projects. Just to give you one example in the super floods of 2010, an estimated 54 million acre feet (MAF) water went to the sea. This huge quantity of water was enough to fill 6 big dams of the size of Tarbela dam. We have vast land available which could be brought under cultivation provided we have irrigation water. In my opinion, if we are sincere with our country then we should development new reservoirs on war footing. It will solve our many of the economic woes as more water will lead to more productivity.
What is over all water quality in Pakistan?
One of PCRWR mandate is water quality monitoring. We started a project to monitor water quality in 24 major cities of the country. We have found out that 50 percent of water supplies in the urban areas are unsafe for drinking due to leakage of pipes. The percent is lower for the rural areas where it is assessed 18 percent. Since the sewerage pipes in water pipelines are laid close to each other there is sometimes sewerage contamination. This type of contamination of the tap water is a big issue in the country.
What are your views on recycling of water?
There is immense scope for recycling water in the country. In some countries they have two type of water supplies one for drinking and other for cleaning and agriculture purposes. We could use recycled water for agriculture purposes. According to estimates we have 200 million gallons of sewerage water every day. Only eight percent of it is treated in Pakistan. The recycling of sewerage is totally economically feasible. By not treating it we are faced with many other problems. We also produce 60,000 tons per day of solid waste. Only 60 percent is collected. In the developed world they recycle their solid waste it is multimillion dollar industry. We are not doing anything on solid waste if we only facilitate some private sector entities at the less of timely disposal of garbage will be addressed.
How we can treat the industrial waste? And what initiates PCRWR is working on?
It is another grey area. We are currently treating only one percent of our industrial waste water. The untreated effluent is major problem in the drainage system. It can also cause water contamination. According to a study upto 50 percent of patients in hospitals in Pakistan are due to water borne diseases. If we improve our water quality we will be declining the number of patients in the hospitals. The same study says that by investment Rs 100 in water improvement the government could save Rs 160 in health care. There is a huge cost to benefit ratio of 1:6, which makes it case for investment in the water sector for a healthier Pakistan.
We took an initiative to identify the problems and find solutions for chlorinization of tubewells. We did a pilot project with the World Health Organization (WHO) and installed 700 chlorizations. Out of which 50 are installed in Islamabad. We are working on water conservation as only the use of sprinklers can help save 10 MAF of water that is equal to a large reservoir. We have established a network of 26 labs all across the country. The National Water Quality Lab Islamabad is ISO 17025 certified that is the highest water quality standard in the world. The results of Islamabad lab are valid all over the world. Recently we surveyed the 10,000 water supply schemes in the country out of the total 12,000 to assess the quality and quantity of water supply and the issues and give recommendations for next ten year demand. We found that 7,000 schemes were operating smoothly while 3,000 schemes were not upto mark due to minor issues like pumping and repair problems. The real problem comes out to be lack of properly trained manpower due to which there are a number of capacity issues.
What are your plans for capacity building?
We are planning to start a special programme with the assistance of South Korea to overcome the human resource capacity issues. We are building an institution where we will be train the people in the water supply and management issues. Korea will be helping us start the project. We will be training the technicians, the foremen and supervisors, and the middle level management SDO and XEN and then the senior management comprising of Chief Engineers. We have already finalized the course for the training of the human resource in different categories.
Does PCRWR have any success stories?
Yes a lot. One of our success stories relates to reclamation of water logged land in Tando Jam in the Sindh province. We have latest machinery and reclaimed 2,500 acres of land in Sindh. We have also successfully commercialized this technology. We reclaimed 54 acres of land of IBA in Khairpur. In Balochistan the recharging of the underground water is a big issue. Delay action dams don’t work there as the soil is such that it closes all the pours and water can’t go down it can only evaporate. We develop the leaky dams that recharge the underground water. We made a few leaky dams which successfully revived the karaz system. This is one of PCRWR big achievement. In Cholistan desert where population ratio of human and animals is 1:20 used to face migration in dry season. We were tasked to find the solution. We build 100 rain water harvesting ponds which could be filled with a single rainfall. They now provide about 400 million gallons of water per annum to the local population and they don’t have to face migration every other year. We have been asked to find solution for providing water to the people of Thar. We have developed a research station that will be studying rain water harvesting in the area.
Do you have plans to commercialize your technologies?
PCRWR is working on developing low cost technologies which could be easily commercialized. We have set up a department to market our successful products. We have developed a kit that checks the quality of the water. It very easily tells whether water is contaminated or not. This kit has a huge demand. We are also selling water purifying tablets which are very affordably priced. A pack of 30 tablets is available for Rs 75. Each tab purifies 20 litres of water. This can easily meet needs of a small family for a month. We have also developed a system for cleaning the flood water for drinking purposes.
What kind of linkages with academia does PCRWR have?
We have not thought on this issue but establishing linkages with other institutions is on our cards. We are developing a water management centre which will be linkage with the provincial departments. Initially the centre will provide training to all and we will try to have its branches in provincial headquarters in future. We need this kind of institute at the provincial level as people don’t understand the importance of water management. They think that simply by adding chlorine many of the water issues are settled. In actual this is not the case and different types of water treatment technologies are applied under various scenarios. A trained manpower will help solve many problems related to the water.
Does climate change also impacting water issues?
To find it out we have started a special project. We are working on setting up over database as without data nobody can say anything for sure. We have acquired software and have our own GIS system to have our own database which will help us build our database. Once the data is there we could utilise in different models and then could reach to some conclusion. But what I can still defiantly say is that we need laws for regulating rain water harvesting as it enhances the underground water table. And we also need laws for protecting underground water. We should also focus on developing new mega reservoirs on fast track basis as they hold the key for our fast track as well as sustainable economic development.