11 JULY 2018 Christopher Crellin, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme
The city of Gwadar, located in the south-western Balochistan region of Pakistan, is currently suffering a water crisis that will inevitably be exacerbated by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The CPEC is an artery of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with Gwadar being the geo-strategic and logistical focal point of the project. The CPEC and Gwadar will act as the bridge between Asia, Europe and Africa. Construction of a deep-water port in Gwadar has begun, using Chinese finance. Beijing is also helping to develop an airport and energy and transportation projects along the corridor.
Migration to Gwadar is expected to increase as the city develops due to the CPEC. Although such development and the associated increase in population may at first seem positive, it will place further strain on the water supply.
Gwadar has experienced a prolonged period of drought, which has resulted in its main water supply, the Ankara Dam, drying up. To alleviate the water shortage, the local government pays the owners of water tankers to deliver water to the city. Unfortunately, this solution comes with its own social and economic issues, which impedes the government’s ability to invest in long-term water projects.
Balochistan has experienced drought since 2013. Rainfall levels are barely reaching a quarter of the usual annual rainfall, with some years recording no rainfall. The lack of rain has resulted in a shortage of surface water. According to a United Nations Development Programme study, the drought is directly and indirectly affecting 60 to 70 per cent of the population in the province.
To overcome those concerns, the Public Health Engineering Department (PHE) and the Balochistan Government pay private water tankers to bring water to Gwadar from the Mirani Dam in Turbat. The dam is 142 kilometres away and the water supplied comes at a cost of approximately 240 million rupees ($2.6 million) per month, according to PHE officials.
Apart from the cost, there are also concerns about the suitability of the water tankers. The so-called “tanker-mafia” benefits from these payments and the reliance that the government has placed on them has caused increased social tension, leading to civil protests. It has been documented that the tanker-mafia repeatedly stops supplying water over payment disputes, leaving citizens for up to a week without water. Many of the tankers are also used to supply Gwadar with petrol and diesel, polluting the water that is brought in them.
Not only are there social and health risks associated with the tankers, but the payments have also placed great strain on government expenditure. The strain on the budget limits the possibility of constructing new water sources, such as desalination plants. As Gwadar is located close to the sea, the groundwater contains high levels of salt. If the city is to utilise alternative water sources, desalination plants will be necessary.
If the CPEC is to remain viable, the water crisis cannot be overlooked and must be addressed. The water supply arrangements must be incorporated into the Gwadar port development plan.
Drought, climate change and increased water demand have made dams almost useless. Ankara dam, which was the first to service Gwadar, was built in 1994 and has dried up four times since. It was constructed to service a population of 35,000, but lack of maintenance has resulted in the loss of half of its capacity. In the past two years, three Chinese-funded dams have been built, with another two to be built as part of the CPEC. These dams, however, are not yet connected to the city.
The most viable option for Gwadar is to utilise its proximity to the Arabian Sea by employing desalination There are currently three desalination plants in Gwadar, two of which were built with Chinese investment. They have proven to be insufficient due to design flaws, ongoing technical issues and high operational costs. The two Chinese plants rely on generators, as there is not enough grid power to run them, which affects the productivity of the plants. In 2015-16, one of the desalination plants provided the city with only 1.1 million litres out of the intended 7.5 million litres per day. There are also concerns that ownership agreements between the Balochistan Government and the Chinese state-owned enterprise, China Overseas Port Holding Company, are further affecting the plants’ productivity. Nevertheless, they are alleviating some of the water pressures.
For the CPEC to be successful, and to ensure the continual development of Pakistan and Gwadar, the water crisis must be confronted. Currently, the people of Gwadar are provided with 115 to 150 litres of water a week, quantities that are not sufficient to meet daily requirements. Therefore, it is necessary to look at ways to increase the supply of water, especially considering the forecast population boom associated with the CPEC.
For the time being, desalination is the most viable solution, as drought will leave dams dry and the available groundwater contains high levels of salt. Other options in the future could consist of shared water projects and experimental technologies that draw on artificial rain, something that the Balochistan Government is currently exploring. If the water crisis continues, and is not overcome in the short term, the viability of the CPEC could be jeopardised.
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