‘Pakistan is expected to run dry by 2025!’ warned Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) last year. Since then, acute shortages of water periodically in urban centers have kept the issue alive in public eye. While a sense of public concern is welcoming given the long-term ramifications of water scarcity, the debate is largely based around need for water storage and construction of new dams.

Missing from public conversation is the systemic challenge created by plantation of water-intensive crops that are responsible for much of water loss. Consider: the country ranks among the lowest in agricultural productivity and yet over 40 percent of working-age population is still employed in farming. Compared to the world average of 70 percent, agriculture sector consumes more than 90 percent of country’s available water resources; whereas agricultural and agri-derived products constitute almost 80 percent of Pakistan’s exports.

At the same time, Pakistan’s crop yield per liter of water is also one of the lowest in the world. As an example, a kilogram of rice requires 2,500 liters of water on average, the same requires up to 5,000 liters of water in Pakistan. Similarly, global average of water consumption for production of 1kg of sugar is 1,500 liters, whereas the same here requires 7,000 liters!

From a food security perspective, an argument can be made that the country cannot wholly become dependent on imports especially given the chronic current account deficit and low foreign exchange reserves. However, reassessment of cropping patterns for such commodities as sugarcane is needed whose production exceeds domestic demand and requires government intervention through subsidies to make the output export-competitive.

Furthermore, substantive actions are required at both federal and provincial level to control water wastage during plantation and cultivation stages. Smart irrigation techniques and measuring mechanism for water consumption in farming regions need to be introduced to improve conservation.

Data generated through such measuring techniques may then be used to reassess cropping patterns and incentivize cultivation of crops that require less water. At the same time, disincentives and penalties could also be introduced for excess water consumption or water thirsty crops by such methods as withholding of fertilizer subsidy to farmers.

Several policy papers and agendas are already in place on Pakistan’s water scarcity and need for water pricing to encourage conservation. The country needs to learn from the not so distant memories of power and gas shortages and take corrective measures before it is too late.