By Mariyam Suleman
The heart of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) struggles with thirst after years of chronic water shortages and soaring rates of water-borne diseases.
As the regional hub of global trade network enters a new phase of development, more people, and on-going construction work are using up the scant water supply. Due to a shortage of clean water, one out of every twenty-five citizens was treated at a health care facility for a water-borne disease over a six-month period in 2017.
A Very Thirsty City
More than 263,500 people or one in every fifty people in Balochistan lives in Gwadar district. With hopes of economic development, more people arrive in Gwadar looking for better opportunities. The annual population growth rate of nearly three percent is expected to balloon once port companies start hiring.
“The current demand for water in Gwadar is 6 million gallons per day (MGD), which will double to12 MGD in 2020,” Dr. Sajjad Baloch, Director General of Gwadar Development Authority (GDA) explained.
For each citizen’s personal use alone, excluding industrial and other water needs, the World Health Organization recommends 7.5 litres of clean water a day, which for a city of a quarter million people, translated to .5 MGD, which most citizens do not receive as the available water is contaminated.
“But this temporary solution of trucking in water drains the provincial budget and contributes to the rise of water-borne diseases. “
The recent water crisis began during the hot and humid month of May 2017. Expected winter downpour never arrived and the nearest dam, Ankara Kaur Dam, 25 km away, had already dried out: this time in less than six months. The government has been trucking in water since then. But this temporary solution drains the provincial budget and contributes to the rise of water-borne diseases.
In early June, during Ramadan all political parties protested, demanding permanent solution for a series of crises that had begun in 2011. But days later, the solution remained the same-trucking in water from Mirani Dam, 150 km away from Gwadar in the neighboring district of Kech.
Instead of government supplying water to citizens, the government outsourced to private companies. The continuous scarcity since then has enormously benefited the tanker mafias – as most citizens call them. Five months later, in early November, the tanker mafias protested, claiming the government had not paid them on time. They stopped the trucks to the city, holding citizens hostage.
This further fueled the tension amongst the citizens and with a media blackout in the province, the struggle over water persuaded the citizens of Gwadar to protest in front of Karachi press club. Protesters traveled 750 kilometers just to get enough media coverage.
But when this technique did not work, they blocked the main Syed Hashmi Avenue (Fish-Harbour Road) and forced a city-wide strike to protest the crisis and the tanker mafia. The same day, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited Gwadar to inaugurate the newly constructed Marine Drive road.
Struggles and protest over water are not new in Balochistan. But these struggles in Gwadar have become a flashpoint amid rising tensions among forces of economic globalization, ineffective governance and growing poverty and inequality.
Dams, Dams Everywhere but No Water
“The water shortage crept in as Gwadar became the focus of attention for the people of the nearest villages, districts as well as for the people of other provinces. The population kept growing after 2002 and with the construction of port and other industrial projects, as water was massively consumed, it became more and more scarce,” argued K.B Firaq a local activist.
Ankara Kaur Dam, the main source of water for more than half the district’s population, has dried up completely because of low rainfall and a massive build-up of silt during the 20 years since it was built. With an area of 17, 000 acres Ankara Kaur Dam was constructed at a cost of Rs. 563 million by NESPAK (National Engineering Services Pakistan) in 1995.
“In a normal scenario, Ankara Dam provides 2.5 MGD (million gallons per day) against the demand of 6 MGD. However, due to a dry spell in the region presently the dam is at a dead level,” explained Dr. Sajjad.
He further added, “Last year two new dams were completed, namely, Sawad and Shadi Kaur Dams. Mirani Dam was previously completed and Belar Dam is small as compared to the rest. Sawad Dam is being connected with Gwadar city, which will provide an additional 5 MGD. Within 6 months 60% of the work on the dam has been completed. It will be completed by April subject to a provision of funds by Federal Government. There is also a plan to connect Shadi Kaur Dam through Chinese funding.
“Even if all these dams are connected
with the city, the major concern is
the decreasing rainfall in the region.
Even if all these dams are connected with the city, the major concern is the decreasing rainfall in the region. During the last few years, it had not rained enough and henceforth, the issue is expected to be more critical if the rainfall shortages continue.
Some believe that due to climate change, dams will never be able to meet the demands of the city. As a local geologist and assistant director of irrigation department in Gwadar Pazeer Ahmed Baloch argued, “The solution to the water crisis lies in the ocean. Hence desalination plants can be a permanent solution, which is today used in different parts of the world.”
The Slow, Costly Process of Desalination
In an arid region where droughts are common, if the sea cannot entirely solve the issue, it does at least promise a reliable alternative for partially quenching the growing thirst. Although desalted water is the most expensive form of freshwater to produce, given the infrastructure costs of collection as well as desalination and distribution, for places such as Gwadar, some feel they are the most reliable solution.
“To meet the drought conditions, the only solution is desalination plant, presently we are struggling to get approval for a 5 MGD plant, but hopefully it will get matured,” Dr. Sajjad explained.
“Each of the desalination plant was
installed at cost of Rs.1 billion
A few years ago, two desalination plants in Karwat and Koh-sar were completed by Balochistan Development Authority (BDA) and Industry and Commerce Department, but due to design flaws, they never worked. “Each of the desalination plant was installed at cost of Rs.1 billion,” says a local journalist Bahram Baloch and other media reports.
When the installation of machinery took longer than expected, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) launched an inquiry into the delay, which was reported in the media, but that did not solve the issue and both plants remain nonfunctional years after completion.
“Government of Balochistan decided to outsource the 2 MGD desalination plant in Karwat to the private sector. Chinese company in Port is also installing a desalination plant and it has offered government of Balochistan to purchase water from it,” However, Dr. Sajjad adds, “The option of the desalination plant is 8-10 times more expensive than dam water.”
The Risky Quick-Fix of Trucking in Water
Amid ongoing development schemes in the port city and struggle for water supply, citizens rely on privately owned water tankers as their only source of potable water. Currently, water is trucked in from Mirani Dam, 150 km away from Gwadar city. Although officials say there is enough water in this dam to supply Gwadar for a few more months, the system is massively inefficient compared to other systems such as government-run aqueducts and pipes.
“Currently we have 360 regular tankers
and 45 trawler-tankers trucking in water from Mirani Dam at the cost of Rs. 17, 000 each.
“Currently we have 360 regular tankers and 45 trawler-tankers trucking in water from Mirani Dam. But the number of tankers differ, sometimes they are fewer and sometimes they’re even more. Each of them is paid around Rs.17,000,” explained Nisar Baloch an official in the Public Health Engineering Department (PHE).
Out of every ten rupees spent in overall Balochistan, less than a rupee is spent for water provision during the crisis in Gwadar. If the crisis continues and the government does not find a cheaper solution, around half of the provisional budget will be consumed to pay the tanker companies.
“Although trucking in water is risky and expensive, for the time-being, it is the only way to provide water to the citizens,” says K.B Firaq.
However, the Public Health Engineering Department has requested and received a supplementary budget from the provincial government to handle the crises in Gwadar.
“Additional Rs. 25 million is still
pending from the previous dues of the
“Even with the supplementary funds, the government is unable to pay the tanker mafia on time and therefore whenever their payment is stopped, they do not provide water. They have been paid for June to September but additional Rs. 25 million is still pending from the previous dues. And therefore, they did not provide water for a few days last month. And when they were promised by the government officials to be provided with the previous dues and for the month of November, they reintegrated the service,” explained Nisar Baloch
Poisoned Water, Sick Citizens
“If you have money, you have clean drinking water. No money means no clean water to drink,” these were the words of the group of young girls fetching water from an open water tank in the Nayabad area of Gwadar. The girls estimate that their water consumption is less than half of the WHO recommended 7.5 litres a day and the water they do carry is not clean.
This is the current reality in the port city where one in every thirty patients who visited Civil Hospital in November had diarrhea, according to Civil Hospital data. Lack of hygiene caused by lack of access to clean water is the major cause of diarrhea.
“Three in every 25 people living
in Gwadar has sought medical
care for water-borne diseases in the
last six months
Previously unreleased data by local health authorities reveals and escalating crisis. According to the Civil Hospital officials, while water-borne diseases have not yet become an epidemic but rates are beginning to spin out of control. Three in every 25 people living in Gwadar has sought medical care for water-borne diseases in the six months between June and November 2017 according to PPHI.
Yunas Hussain, a local healthcare specialist in civil hospital explained, “Different health issues emerge with the use of the water being provided: firstly diarrhea and then cholera, typhoid, dysentery, Guinea worm diseases, as well as hepatitis and kidney problems. But since we do not have facilities to deal with other water-borne diseases, we can only treat diarrhea, typhoid or cholera.” However, the PPHI data also shows cases of urinary tract infections and hepatitis being reported in the local hospital during the last six months.
According to the local citizens, groundwater is the safest because it is naturally filtered. Local geologist Pazeer Ahmed, who has been part of two major water researches in the region, said that this is a dangerous myth. “We tested groundwater of different places in the district and the results showed that the elements present in the water are higher in concentration than the World Health Organization (WHO) permissible limits,” he explained. “With its continuous consumption over a period, it can result in different chemical changes in human body causing different diseases.”
In the groundwater, the level of sodium is three times higher, potassium is 12 times higher whereas sulfate is twice as high and nitrate is forty times higher than the WHO permissible limits. These elements may cause headaches, nausea, diarrhea, heart and kidney related diseases if people continue using this water according to a 2016 study, “Impact of seawater intrusion on the groundwater of Gwadar district, Balochistan”.
“In 2011, we conducted similar research studied samples of water from Ankara Kaur Dam, which has been the sole source of water for the last twenty years. The concentration of elements is higher than the WHO permissible limits, so the results from Ankara Kaur dam were not satisfying either,” explained Pazeer Ahmed.
Currently, water being trucked in from Mirani Dam is not safe either. According to the results of another study by Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) Laboratories Complex in Karachi, the water from Mirani Dam is not safe for human consumption.
“People who can afford it buy filtered water but since most of the population does not have enough for other basic needs, paying for drinking water for large families is far from thoughts,” said Abdul Ghafoor a local resident.
The government only invests one in every ten rupees from the provincial budget in public health even though the vast majority of the city relies on water sources likely to make them ill.
Ineffective Government Investment for a Huge Problem
The government’s track record for providing clean water makes many experts and citizens skeptical of the large-scale dams and desalination plants the government has in the works. The biggest dam is clogged with silt and dry. The dams that still have water are contaminated. The desalinization plants never did work. People are getting sicker every day.
“Out of every 10 rupees provided
through foreign aid, 8 are spent
for water resource management
“There is influx of funding but lack of interest to permanently solve the issue,” says KB Firaq. Part of the problem may be a lack of a centralized strategy for water provision, with the responsibility for clean water distributed across various departments.
According to government of Balochistan budget for 2016-17, for every 10 rupees spent for provincial housing and amenities, 2 are spent for public health engineering (responsible for water provision); from every 10 rupees spent for public sector development 1 is spent for water-related development and out of every 10 rupees provided through foreign aid, 8 are spent for water resource management development projects.
“Basically, the foreign aid project aims at improving the irrigation system in the province, but it also provides funding for potable water supply facilities to the citizens,” explained one the officers at the provincial budget department.
Water management in a mega-city like Gwadar did not have to reach crisis levels if the funds had been managed effectively, according to many local water experts. Pazeer Ahmed explained, “We have examples of desalination plants working effectively for entire cities mainly nearest to us are the Gulf countries such as UAE and Saudi Arabia. They too have very arid and dry weather with very little rainfall.”
He continued, “Hence, desalination plants have perfectly worked for them, if the rainfall has decreased, and dams do not enough water, we can rely on desalination plants. In other words, the scarcity of water is not driven by lack of water but lack of effective governance.”