LAHORE: Imagine water trucks buzzing along the ancient city’s main intersections, long queues at water filtration plants in soaring heat, hospital wards brimming with victims of water-borne diseases, seemingly arbitrary water supply ‘load sheddings’, poor families clamouring for clean drinking water while politicians and authorities promise immediate resolution.
The image painted above may seem dark and hyperbolic but it represents a potential future, the city of Lahore and her residents may have to face if current policies and social norms regulating water use continue to hold sway.
One consequence of such rapid and unregulated urbanisation is that water resources are experiencing acute stress. A 2014 report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimated household water consumption in the city at approximately 3.79 million cubic metres per day (MCM/ day) or 1,383 MCM/year, almost all of it coming from Lahore’s single aquifer.
It is therefore not shocking that the water table is plummeting by 2.5-3 feet per year given that hundreds of water pumps operated by the Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) or private housing schemes have become operational in recent years.
Figures from 2014 suggest that a total outflow from the aquifer at approximately 2,617 MCM/Year and an inflow of 2,372 MCM/Year, close to 250 MCM/Year is being lost. This is simply unsustainable.
The uncontrolled extraction of water resources coupled with poor recharge of the aquifer means that the city may well run out of the water if counter-measures are not introduced on an emergency basis.
Aquifer recharge strategies, change in social norms dictating water use, controlled and regulated urbanisation and environmentally sensitive city planning are imperative if this Gordian knot is to be managed.
“Aquifer recharge can be performed via natural or artificial means,” says Professor Dr Habibur Rehman at the University of Engineering & Technology, Lahore.
“Most of the rainwater is wasted as construction in the city has limited the availability of open areas,” he says, adding that concrete or other materials used in construction prevent water from seeping down. However, effective planning can help avert this problem.
“Establishment of recharge wells or infiltration galleries are financially feasible options for aquifer recharge despite this,” he says.
“Infiltration trenches around roads or other public spaces can help transfer water to tanks. The water can then be used to recharge the aquifer or treated for public use.”
“Likewise, households can also harvest rainwater by installing an inexpensive tank. The water can then be used for purposes where clean drinking water is not necessarily required e.g. for gardening. At the moment drinking water is wasted on such activities.”
Government College University’s (GCU) Professor Dr Amin ul Haq Khan agrees.
“Social norms dictating water use are needlessly imprudent. The public needs to realise that clean drinking water will become increasingly difficult to obtain if present trends continue. There is an urgent need to change social habits.”
“Urbanisation is expected to continue in the future, the least we can do is manage our consumption and that applies to authorities as well. Drinking water is used to water plants in public spaces for example, this is an exceedingly wasteful practice.”
“Similar concepts apply in terms of architecture and city planning. Houses, buildings and other such infrastructure have limited open spaces. Impermeable materials are used to clothe open surfaces creating a jungle of concrete which results in Urban Heat Island (UHI).”
Urban Heat Island (UHI) refers to an increase in average temperatures in urban environments as compared to surrounding areas due to significant changes to the land. Use of concrete or asphalt and a reduction in open soil contributes to this effect. It is difficult to imagine the consequences this can have on public health given that average temperatures are rising globally and water availability in the city declines. Increase in urban temperatures also results in increased energy consumption, with the public resorting to higher use of electronic devices such as air conditioners.
The poor are consequently most likely to suffer the ill effects of such developments.
“In terms of city planning, Lahore is expanding horizontally with new housing schemes springing up,” says Dr Habib. “This exacerbates the problem by impacting aquifer recharge, causes an increase in average temperatures and acts as a pull for rural communities, thereby increasing urbanisation,” he adds.
“It is really tragic,” agrees Dr Amin “Valuable agricultural land is lost to concrete structures and impacts food productivity. Obviously, it need not be mentioned that deforestation is another consequence.”
“It is pertinent, now more than ever, that Lahore adopts a vertical growth pattern. Look at how large cities across the world develop, apartment complexes are needed more than large open housing societies,” says Dr Habib.
“The Lahore Development Authority (LDA) also needs to have a policy that private housing schemes must maintain 90 per cent of the water table, avoid over extraction and ensure minimal hydrological disturbance.”
“Responsibility should not be laid at the feet of authorities alone. The public needs to realise the urgency of the problem. The civil society, the media and informed members of the public must play their due role if this issue is to be managed,” says Dr Amin.
Many of the social problems experienced by residents of Lahore are direct consequences of urbanisation. The complex and intricately entangled mesh include problems such as public health, environmental sustainability, population increase, transport, citizen productivity and inefficient energy use among others. The physical environment is both a cause and a consequence of social and political norms dictating governance. Consider the fact that quality educational institutes and health facilities are concentrated within a limited geographic area while areas outside it are deprived.
The purpose of this article is to highlight a single strand (water crisis) that is part of a complex system which need not be viewed independently but as part of an overarching network that requires sensitive policymaking, detailed studies and an aware citizenry.