According to the United Nations and the Pakistani authorities, between 30 and 40 percent of illnesses and deaths nationwide are attributable to poor water quality.
Nearly 15 days old, Kinza whimpers in a hospital in Islamabad, where she suffers from diarrhea and blood poisoning, a tiny victim among thousands affected by Pakistan’s heavily polluted and declining water supply.
Wrapped in a colorful blanket, Kinza moves in slow motion, like a little doll. Her mother, Sartaj, does not understand how her daughter got so sick.
“Every time I give her the bottle, I cook the water,” she tells AFP.
But Sartaj and her family drink daily from a stream in their neighborhood Islamabad – one of several waterways that flow through the capital and are swallowed by dirt. Boiling the water can only do so much.
You are not alone. More than two-thirds of households drink contaminated water and every year 53,000 Pakistani children die from diarrhea after drinking it, UNICEF says.
Cases of typhoid, cholera, dysentery and hepatitis are common. According to the United Nations and the Pakistani authorities, between 30 and 40 percent of illnesses and deaths nationwide are attributable to poor water quality.
And it costs developing countries billions. In 2012, the World Bank, which has warned that “substantial investment is needed to improve sanitation,” estimates that water pollution costs Pakistan $ 5.7 billion, or nearly four percent of GDP.
“Water is the biggest problem for the country,” says Professor Javed Akram, vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad.
The Rawal Lake Reservoir serves Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but official forecasts show that the country, whose population has quintupled to approximately 207 million since 1960, will experience an “absolute water shortage” by 2025
In Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, the situation is even worse than in Islamabad.
The Ravi River, which supplies the town’s approximately 11 million people with drinking water, also serves as an overflow to hundreds of factories upstream.
River fish are eaten by locals, but “some papers show that some heavy metal contaminants are found in the fishbones,” says Sohail Ali Naqvi, a WWF project leader.
Ravi is also used to irrigate neighboring plants that are themselves rich in pesticides, warns Lahore environmentalist Ahmad Rafay Alam.
– “Absolute scarcity” –
The lack of water infrastructure is garish. In a country where the “environment is not part of the political agenda,” there are “almost no treatment facilities,” warns Imran Khalid, a researcher at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.
More than two-thirds of households drink contaminated water and every year 53,000 Pakistani children die from diarrhea after drinking it, UNICEF says.
“If you can afford it, buy bottles of water, but what about those who can not?” he says.
In Karachi, a megacity with up to 20 million inhabitants, mafias fill the vacuum of the creaking local network and sell the precious water they sell on tanker trucks at high prices.
In the face of widespread outrage, Sindh, together with the province of Punjab, which is home to more than half of the country’s population, has already announced measures to improve water quality, but its effectiveness is not yet foreseeable.
But Pakistan’s water is not only contaminated – it is becoming scarce.
In northern Pakistan there are Himalayan glaciers and high rainfall. So far, however, the focus has been on irrigated areas in the south.
Official forecasts show that the country, whose population has quintupled to around 207 million people since 1960, will dry up by 2025 if there is an “absolute scarcity” of water in Pakistan of less than 500 cubic meters per person.
According to the UN, this is only one third of the available water in already desiccated Somalia.
– ‘lack of education’ –
Pakistan, a country with massive Himalayan glaciers, monsoon rains and floods, has only three large reservoirs compared to more than a thousand in South Africa or Canada, says Bashir Ahmad of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council.
Thus, any surplus is quickly lost, Ahmad said, denouncing “a lack of political vision” to fight the nationwide water crisis.
While official statistics show that 90 percent of the country’s water is used for agriculture, the massive irrigation network built decades ago by British colonists has worsened.
Much of it seems to contradict common sense. “We neglect the northern areas where there is a lot of rain and focus on irrigated areas like Sindh or Punjab,” says Ahmad.
There, in dry areas where temperatures can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius, Pakistan grows water-intensive crops such as rice and sugar cane.
“The crisis is looming, and the water table is sinking day by day in all urban areas,” warns Muhammad Ashraf, chairman of the Pakistan Water Resources Research Council.
Pumps move deeper and deeper into the water table, where the arsenic content is naturally higher, he warns. An international study in August said that 50 to 60 million Pakistanis are slowly poisoning with arsenic-contaminated water.
Nevertheless, garbage remains the norm. In Islamabad streets are covered with dust, cars are washed daily and green lawns are generously poured.
“We own our homes, but not our streams,” sighs Ashraf. “That’s why we throw our waste into the rivers.”