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  • How science is tackling Pakistan's water shortages


Efforts are underway to preserve Pakistan's water supply as climate change, population growth and a stressed irrigation system take their toll.

Water availability per person has already fallen by more than 500 per cent since the 1960s and is likely to decrease even further to just 550 cubic metres by 2025 — compared with the 9,800 cubic metres currently available in the United States, for example.

Around two thirds of the water for public supply is contaminated. Waterborne diseases lead to 250,000 child deaths per year, around 80 per cent of all diagnosed disease and 30 per cent of all deaths in the country.

"If Pakistan doesn't manage its water resources differently it's going to run out of water," said Suman Paranjape, a molecular virologist at the US Department of State's Biosecurity Engagement Program in Washington, DC. "Of the countries we work with in the South Asia region, Pakistan is probably in the most trouble in terms of water availability and water quality."

But science might help Pakistan deal with its water problems.

"Pakistan has a long and proud history of developing and managing its water resources," said Muhammad Aslam Tahir, chair of the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources in Islamabad.

Last decade saw an improvement in laboratory facilities, low-cost water testing and treatment kits, and the assessment of water supply systems around the country.

Planned research projects with collaborators in the United States aim to map and understand the distribution and quantity of water resources and the impacts a changing climate could have on them.

Scientists are also working on a national water quality monitoring plan, training on new sampling techniques, exploring causes of arsenic in groundwater and using biotechnology to control wastewater.

Following a meeting in July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a Signature Water Program for Pakistan to improve its ability to increase efficient management and use of its scarce water resources and improve water distribution, with some of the US$270 million going towards science and technology exchange between Pakistan and the United States.

Scientists are conducting sampling to understand the threats from water pollution. And a Pakistan National Water Resources Database System, a single database that should make future research on water issues easier, will be operational by the end of this year.

Pakistan's scientists are capable of "conducting a wide variety of water resources research, including irrigation, drainage, land reclamation, groundwater modelling, surface water modelling, water quality analysis, the use of geographic information systems and much more," said Steve Kemna, a United States Geological Survey environmental engineer, who has worked on the water database.

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