In the last two decades, Pakistan has been in the news for all sorts of challenges and problems that the country faces. From being at the epicenter of a potential nuclear Armageddon with neighbor India, in a theatre where two nuclear rivals with a combined population of over 1.5 billion (or 1/5th of humanity) sit on a large nuclear arsenal and many a fault-lines, to being the focus of global war on terror against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. From accusations of harboring the Taliban and other terror groups to combating militants and terrorists that have killed more than 80,000 Pakistanis. And from the lingering political instability to fears of an economic meltdown, news from Pakistan has mostly not been good. And all the challenges listed above are being faced by the country and are on the radar of the country and its policymakers all along. Yet, there is one threat that the country faces and it has been overlooked for a long time. Even now its severity and nature are not fully understood. This threat is the ecological threat that the country faces and the corresponding demographic challenge attached to it in the densely populated Central Punjab region of the country.
Pakistan is among the countries most affected by climate change. Rising temperatures are leading to fast melting of glaciers in northern Himalayas and Karakoram range. A combination of rapid glacier melting and changing weather patterns is exposing many areas of the country to frequent bouts of flooding and drought. Water scarcity is becoming a huge problem and it is estimated that by 2025 country will face 31 Million Acre Feet of water shortage. Rising sea levels, because of diminishing downstream flows, are claiming lands in the country’s southern coastal areas of Thatha and Badin. And yet even in ecology, the biggest threat facing the country stems from the country’s heartland of Central Punjab and is overlooked by policymakers and citizens alike.
Central Punjab, the country’s most populous and most affluent region, is dying a slow ecological death that is unnoticed. Factors contributing to this decay are ecological and demographic. The area became mostly densely populated for multiple reasons, foremost being home to the most fertile lands in a country where economy still relies on agricultural output. Also, post-partition in 1947, almost all the migrant population from East Punjab settled in central Punjab. In comparison, the migrants from West Punjab to India were made to settle in areas as far as Assam and Madras (now Chennai). This, along with, the population implosion that followed made this area densely populated. With many of the country’s large urban centers located in the area, urbanization further increased population density. To put things in perspective, a semi-circle of 150 km radius around Lahore is home to around 70 million people.
If this was not enough for a multitude of reasons, this area is becoming water scarce. In 1960, Pakistan and India signed the Indus Water treaty, in which Pakistan ceased control of the Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas rivers to India. These rivers were the primary water sources for this region. Though the country tried to fill this water gap through a system of link-canals bringing the Indus river’s water to these rivers; as the population and economic activity exploded, the arrangement started to crumble. More so, the country on the brink of water scarcity still has two of its main crops in rice and sugarcane, crops which have a high water demand for cultivation. No thought was given to gradual crop replacement and/or improving irrigation techniques to make irrigation and agriculture more efficient in terms of water use. The ecological factors mentioned above (wastage in agriculture and a population bulge), combined with the drying of the region’s natural water sources, led to excessive use of ground water and ultimately, the depletion of ground water resources. More so, because of the drying up of natural water channels (the three previously mentioned rivers), the major infusion into ground water table diminished as well. The groundwater levels in most areas of central Punjab have reached alarmingly low levels. In the 1980s, one could find fresh drinkable water at depth of around 20-25 feet below ground-level in Lahore. Now the average depth of a bore for water is over 200 feet in the city. Lahore, now, is the only mega city in the world without a natural water source (river or ocean) next to it. It is feared that the city will be without groundwater by 2040. The situation is the same in other cities of central Punjab and its periphery.
More so, Central Punjab is one area of Pakistan that has no indigenous source of energy. Unlike Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan which have hydro power sites, or Sindh and Baluchistan with reserves of natural gas and coal, Punjab does not have any indigenous energy source. Indus treaty projects built in haste and through foreign consultants, not familiar with local dynamics, did not account for provision of a suitable gradient to develop hydro power sites for power generation. And in absence of any natural source of energy, Punjab has to rely on energy from other areas for its energy needs. Fortunately, it has abudant solar power potential, but lack of financing infrastructure makes its rapid adoption difficult. Thus, we have a 150km radius semicircle with 70 million+ people with depleting water resources and no indigenous source of energy. It is the biggest ecological and demographic ticking timebomb for Pakistan. The country seems on course to survive terrorism and has survived near-financial meltdown situations in the past, it has never faced a threat of this scale; and if allowed to eventualize, will find it difficult to survive. The need of the hour is to deploy resources to an effective plan that reduces the population burden from Central Punjab region through controlled movement of population to other areas, restoration of the ground water table, and provision of indigenous energy through solar. That is the only way to avoid this near-certain catastrophe. Failure will lead to a crisis where 70 million+ people will be without water, intruding abruptly to greener neighboring pastures.