Ever since its formation as an independent state in 1947, Pakistan has seen its share of adversity. Wars and rivalry with India have become more toxic since the two countries acquired nuclear weapons in 1998. This has become an integral part of the country’s history and daily experience, along with the conflict in Afghanistan, struggles with Islamic extremism, military dictatorships, and tackling socio-economic troubles. One can say that Pakistan has always been on the verge of becoming a failed state. However, Pakistan currently faces a challenge that truly threatens to send it over the edge. Namely, the country’s depletion of drinking water has the potential to endanger its economy and security.  As a result, this country of over 200 million people, armed with nuclear weapons in one of the most geopolitically sensitive regions in the world, could face a new crisis with an unpredictable outcome. 

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), water scarcity is defined as a key risk for Pakistan and its economy in the future. It is estimated that Pakistan will become the most water-stressed country in South Asia by 2040, with absolute water scarcity by 2025, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked Pakistan third in the world in terms of countries facing water shortages. The reasons for the country’s water scarcity are numerous, with the most important being climate change, urbanization, and political mismanagement.

In recent years, there has been a continuous process of urbanization in the country, particularly as the urban population fled the countryside due to Islamic extremism and fallout from climate change, which has led to droughts in these rural farming areas. This process of urbanization has created a strange mismatch. Pakistan is one of the world’s most improved countries in terms of water access, as 44 million people got access to drinking water since 2000. However, it is also the case that 21 million people, out of a total population of 207 million, do not have access to clean water. Indeed, this access corresponds with income inequality, as 98 percent of the richest Pakistanis have access to clean water, compared to 79.2 percent of the poorest parts of the population.

In major urban centers, citizens have already begun to rely on private providers of drinking water, giving rise to a particular type of organized crime, known as the tanker mafia, which sees the provision of drinking water as a source of profit. This is no surprise if one takes a look at these major urban centers. In Karachi, 91 percent of the city’s water supply is non-potable, while in Sindh province, 83 percent of water is undrinkable. The tanker mafia has become a powerful force as it controls an essential natural resource for which there is always demand, particularly in slum neighborhoods of large urban cities which have no piping or suitable infrastructure.  In Korangi, a slum neighborhood of Karachi, the tanker mafia siphons off water from government pipes that run through private land, proving just what a well-performing criminal enterprise has been established, as evident by prices. Indeed, the water siphoned from government piping is estimated to cost USD 150 for a monthly supply, while potentially hazardous well water can cost USD 20 in highly impoverished neighborhoods. This state of affairs can be interpreted as a major element of the failed state, as Pakistan is unable to provide its citizens with basic public services, leaving whole segments of population reliant on organized crime instead of the state.

Incompetent management on the part of public administration is another major hindrance. The river Indus represents one of the largest irrigation systems in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan, as it is the longest river in the country. However, in 2017, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), a public authority for the river Indus, publicly declared that Pakistan annually dumps USD 21 billion in water into the sea, while the country’s shortage in water requirements was estimated to be 36 percent. This was evidently proof that the Pakistani state and its public administration are incapable of effectively tackling the country’s endemic problem.

The shortage of water in the Indus has also severely affected crops in the country, depriving it of crop revenues, particularly in cotton. Pakistan is on the verge of losing 31 Million Acres Feet (MAF) of water by 2025, further endangering an economy that counts agriculture as 26 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). Climate change has also made things worse for Pakistan, with inconsistent rainfall increasing the dependence on the Indus River. In the summer of 2018, the country experienced a 28-percent decrease in rainfall, and the generation of hydropower has also been affected as only half of the country’s hydropower generation is utilized. As such, with current trends, Pakistan’s future is seemingly in peril. It is forecasted that by 2050, Pakistan will be the world’s sixth most populous country, with 271 million people; however, the amount of water available per person will decrease by 60 percent at that point. That means that the country will be faced with a growing population whose most elemental need for water will be hard to meet.

For those Pakistanis whose physical well-being and health are not endangered by water scarcity, there will be those indirectly affected as water scarcity will affect the economic well-being of the country by destroying industry sectors like agriculture. Water shortage severely affected Pakistan’s agricultural segment in the summer of 2018. Namely, this water shortage endangered the government’s annual production targets for mung, mash, chilies, cotton, rice, maize, and tomatoes.  Beyond the obvious implications of the water shortage damaging very important farming revenues, there are also long-term risks for food security. This brings the danger of social upheaval as the prospect of civil unrest becomes more likely. In April 2018, labor representatives of cutting, stitching and export industries threatened to strike over the government’s inability to resolve the issue of water shortages and electricity supply.

Moreover, Pakistani’s internal problem of tribal divisions, Jihadi groups, and militias becomes even more dangerous, as these groups could become embroiled in conflict for control over water resources. The Baluchistan region in Pakistan is particularly at risk, as 62 percent of the region has no access to safe drinking water and more than 58 percent of the land is uncultivatable due to water scarcity.  Since 1948, Baluchistan has been an incessant source of insurgency organized by various local tribes against the Pakistani state. If Pakistan is unable to guarantee the provision of water, insurgency is highly likely to intensify in this region. Of further note, it is located in a critical place, intended to act as the location for Chinese infrastructure projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Indeed, in January 2019, the Baloch Liberation Army, an insurgent group, threatened to target Chinese infrastructural projects in Baluchistan.

In a similar vein, the Pakistani conflict with India could similarly become a greater threat, as both countries are worried about their future access to drinking water. The Indus Water Treaty, signed by India and Pakistan in 1960, has been successful in preventing rivalry between the two over water supplies. However, in recent years, even India has become aware of its ability to threaten and leverage Pakistan with the fact that it controls the Indus River flows. Furthermore, Narenda Modi’s government in India has been engaged in heightened tensions regarding this issue with Pakistan. In September 2016, Modi stated that “blood and water cannot flow at the same time,” while in March 2018, he openly threatened to cut off water supply to Pakistan. If India decides to leverage Pakistan using water supply, or if Pakistan perceives India’s actions as threatening to its water security needs, the rivalry between the two risks becoming more dangerous and destructive.

Pakistan has historically been a global geopolitical flashpoint, as a nuclear-armed country surrounded by countries like Afghanistan, Iran, China, and India. The consequences that Pakistan potentially faces over its impending water shortage will thus have wider ramifications, reverberating far beyond its own borders.