Our Perspective

Communities lead the charge on sustainable water management


Not too long ago, Haji Khalil, a 48-year-old farmer, could not walk through his fields without a sense of guilt. His farm was in Bhama, a village on the fertile river plain of Punjab, the “land of five rivers” in Pakistan. His vegetables and grain crops flourished and there was a vast market for his produce in the nearby city of Lahore, but the faint, omnipresent smell in the air reminded him that his crops were irrigated by sewage.

“I always considered this land to be our mother that feeds us when we are hungry,” he said. “It gives us shelter, it provides space to my elders when they die, and in response, what I am giving back is untreated sewage full of human pathogens.”

Haji Khalil’s words resonate with farmers across Pakistan and the world. Unsafe water not only has impacts on the food we grow from it, it affects the entire ecosystem. As my years of working with UNDP in Pakistan and Egypt have brought home, sustainable water management in the face of growing global demand, is amongst the most urgent needs of our time.

Stories like Haji Khalil’s bring to life the facts and figures that demonstrate Pakistan’s urgent need for water management. This country of over 200 million people is one of the 36 most water-stressed in the world. In 1951 each Pakistani accessed 5,260 cubic metres of water per year – today, this has fallen to 908. Pakistan extracts a whopping 74 percent of its freshwater annually, but wastage and pollution are high.

Decades of population growth; unregulated agricultural, industrial and household water use; untreated runoff and waste dumping; deforestation and ecosystem degradation and wasteful irrigation systems have led to a situation where the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources has warned that the country will run out of water by 2025.

In Pakistan, UNDP is at the forefront of efforts to introduce innovative solutions for sustainable water management, bringing expertise and best practices learned from its work around the world. At the policy level we supported the government in developing its first National Climate Change Policy in 2013, pushing for clear action plans on water management. Now we are working with government, civil society, private partners and – critically – communities to find ways of implementing the policy.

Testing nature-based solutions that work for Pakistan has been a core part of our approach as we nurture new approaches to sustainable development that tread lightly on fragile ecosystems. The long-running Sustainable Land Management programme concentrated on areas in all four provinces which are at risk of desertification. Under this programme, we piloted dry afforestation, rangeland rehabilitation, rainwater harvesting, soil conservation works, promotion of rain-fed agriculture and low delta crops, establishing shelterbelts, micro-irrigation, forest and orchard plantation, and the creation of farmers’ nurseries. Such measures help a large and growing population live in partnership with the environment instead of simply extracting what it needs.

In Pakistan’s mountainous regions our New World partnerships have led to sustainable access to safe drinking water through water points established in villages. Communities are at the forefront of these partnerships. In Siksa village in Gilgit-Baltistan, for example, women and girls once had to labour through the night, walking over unpaved mountain paths carrying water to irrigate the fields. In such areas, women are at the forefront of sustainable community-led water management. Recognizing that water is not a free resource to be squandered, with UNDP support, they are leading efforts to develop sustainable consumption practices, and establishing kitchen gardens to build their own incomes and improve their families’ health.

Water management in Pakistan is not just an economic necessity, it is a matter of human welfare. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the urban slums of Pakistan, where untreated sewage channels can harbour deadly poliovirus, devastating families and preventing the eradication of a preventable disease. Under the New World programme, therefore, our Zindagi project has worked with communities in some of the highest risk areas for polio in the cities of Karachi, Peshawar and Multan to establish and manage solar powered water filtration plants.

It is not a coincidence that all of our work in Pakistan is built on a foundation of close community collaboration. Communities are recognize and experience the impacts of poor water management in their local environment. They see their crops suffer and their children fall ill, they notice the disappearance of wildlife and encroaching desertification. Above all, I believe that communities are the best stewards of their environment, and recognize the value of nature-based solutions and their own role in water management and sustainable consumption.

Haji Khalil, the Lahore farmer, eventually partnered with our New World programme, donating a piece of land to establish a small sewage treatment plant that now provides Bhama with clean irrigation water. As new concepts in nature-based solutions come to Pakistan in the years to come, such as wetlands, green spaces and afforestation initiatives, countless Haji Khalils will be at the forefront of ensuring sustainable water supply whilst preserving the environment that nurtures us all.

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