Initiative Result:

A revolution in Pakistan’s groundwater management

Pakistan’s Punjab Province is rolling out a practical, near-real-time information system to reverse the rapid deterioration of its groundwater.

Pakistan faces an unprecedented water crisis, exacerbated by climate change. Groundwater is the country’s major source of irrigation, industrial, and domestic water; however, overpumping, contamination, and waterlogging are existential threats. Improved groundwater management is crucial but hampered by a lack of useful data. Researchers from the CGIAR Research Initiative on NEXUS Gains collaborated with the Punjab Provincial Irrigation Department to test a practical methodology to obtain reliable, timely data. The Department is now implementing this methodology province-wide to enable data-informed, targeted interventions and ensure sustainable use of this vital resource.

Groundwater is an invisible collective resource, not confined within the boundaries of private land, provinces, or countries. Managing it sustainably and equitably is a complex challenge, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. In addition, pumping groundwater consumes an enormous amount of diesel fuel(1), generating high greenhouse gas emissions. The CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains is developing tools to support improved groundwater governance, but the challenge is daunting(2). Surface and groundwater have historically been viewed as separate, but they are a single integrated resource.

At nearly 20 million hectares, Pakistan has the largest integrated surface irrigation system in the world. Seepage from the irrigation network and recharge from rainfall has created a reservoir of easily accessible groundwater. Farmers use this to supplement the surface water supply, enabling higher production. Groundwater also accounts for 90 percent of domestic water in rural areas (70 percent nationally) and more than 50 percent of agricultural water, especially in Punjab, the most populous province(3, 4). Punjab also contributes 60 percent of Pakistan’s agricultural production, more than half of which depends on irrigation water supplied by private tubewells. Unregulated groundwater exploitation in Punjab and nationally has reduced groundwater levels and increased water contamination, waterlogging, and soil salinization. The Indus Basin aquifer, vital to the country’s water supply, is one of the most overstressed groundwater reserves in the world.

Groundwater degradation is an existential threat to Pakistan’s future, especially given rapid climate change, a large and rapidly growing population (which currently stands at more than 241 million people), and high levels of rural poverty and malnutrition: some 40 percent of its population, mostly in rural areas, live below the poverty line. Groundwater depletion may significantly reduce GDP(3, 4). Recognizing the need for strong action, the National Water Policy 2018 and Punjab Water Act 2019 initiated significant institutional reforms and called for better groundwater management by actively managing critical groundwater depletion zones. However, this requires reliable, timely data.

PID has historically managed provincial surface water delivery through canals; these deliveries are monitored through its Water Management Information System. The Water Act made the PID responsible for groundwater management. However, it had limited capacity to monitor groundwater. It had fewer than 10 operational piezometers (instruments to measure water pressure in observation wells) and these were randomly located and monitored manually twice a year. This was insufficient to provide the information needed to support strategic decision-making.

The PID therefore established a technical hub to support implementation of the new Punjab Water Act. At the 2021 NEXUS Gains stakeholder planning workshop, the PID invited the Initiative to help close the groundwater information gap by co-developing a groundwater management information system (GMIS). This was co-developed and co-tested in one district, Rahim Yar Khan, by monitoring a sample of domestic, agricultural, and industrial tubewells. The data collected includes the total number (80,000) and types of tubewells, their size, discharge, location, depth, and water quality. Depletion hotspots were demarcated using Principal Component Analysis and 40 new piezometers were systematically installed. They are equipped with submersible dataloggers which enable near-real-time daily monitoring of groundwater levels. Because the number of tubewells and their use is known, information not previously available – such as changes in groundwater level – can now be linked to abstractions. By providing near-real-time information, the approach is supporting the development of an actionable roadmap for sustainable groundwater management.

In 2022–2023, NEXUS Gains organized six technical workshops to share the findings of the GMIS and provided additional training to PID personnel. The Department is now implementing the GMIS throughout Punjab Province(7, 8, 9, 10, 11), with continuing technical and training support from NEXUS Gains. For the first time, the PID can monitor and manage the entire water resource: rainfall, surface water, and groundwater. Better water management enhances adaptive capacity and climate resilience.

Collecting reliable timely data, integrated into an effective management information system, is a prerequisite for success. Based on the success of the GMIS in Punjab, we are now testing the GMIS in Pakistan’s Sindh and Baluchistan Provinces with support from the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center and the World Bank(12). If it is implemented countrywide, this will provide Pakistan with the tools needed to manage water conjunctively.

NEXUS Gains is also supporting work to improve water productivity and energy management. Our interventions will enable higher agricultural  production, better food security, and a reduction in malnutrition and infections from water-borne diseases. NEXUS Gains is making important contributions to enabling Pakistan to meet climate change and other challenges successfully and prosper in the future.

Efficient groundwater management in Pakistan is imperative. NEXUS Gains/IWMI collaborated with the Punjab Irrigation Department to test a practical methodology for collecting timely, reliable data. It is being implemented province-wide and tested in two other provinces. This will facilitate datadriven interventions to combat threats and ensure sustainable groundwater use.

Abdul Shakoor, Chief Engineer, Water Resources Zone, Punjab Irrigation Department

Header photo: Koga irrigation Dam, Amhara region, Ethiopia. Mulugeta Ayene/WLE

CGIAR Centers

IWMI

Partners

Punjab Irrigation Department, Pakistan; Punjab Water Services; Regulatory Authority (PWSRA)