The Tale of Lahore’s Water Crisis

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


Dr. Syed M. Hasan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at MGSHSS.  In order to help devise efficient public sector interventions, He is working in collaboration with WASA, PERI and the WIT Center on projects to provide meaningful price and non-price interventions to incentivize the conservation of water.

The research conducted in this regard also benefits from active collaboration of leading researchers in the area; Agha Ali Akram at University and Marc Jeuland at Sanford School of Policy, Duke University. Research contribution by Fatiq and Fatima, Senior Econ students is also acknowledged here.


The Hudud-ul-Alam, a 10 tenth century geographical account of the World with original manuscript in Persian, mentions Lahore as a town extending along the rivers Jhelum, Chenab, and Ravi with “impressive temples, large markets and elaborate orchards.” The exact origins of the city are hard to trace but this city became the pinnacle of culture during the Mughal rule in the 16th century. The era marked the construction of gates, forts, mosques, gardens thereby making it the ideal city to rule the western part of the empire. Later, the British added to the development of the urban center with canals, paved roads, railways and gave the city a touch of the West. In between all these phases, the city had to endure numerous wars, plagues, and a partition, but with its orchards, canals and the rivers intact, sufficient provision of safe drinking water was never an issue.

            Being located on the banks of Ravi, the transboundary Himalayan perennial river formed the principal source and provided sufficient water to the inhabitants of Lahore. The Gazetteer of Lahore compiled in 1884 reports that until 1881 the city was chiefly dependent on wells’ water for drinking purposes but in June of that year, water works for provision of ‘modern’ clean drinking water system were formally opened for public. At the time, the system was built in a way that water, drawn from 6 wells sunk in a strip of land located on the old course of river Ravi, was directed to a reservoir, located at the highest part of the city. The reservoir commonly called “Pani Wala Talab” was inaugurated by Sir Charles Aitchson, the then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. The Gazetteer continues to inform that in those days the average depth of water wells in Lahore was about 45 to 50 feet (13 to 15 meters). Comparing to those days, this scenario has completely changed. The city that once used to have a population of nearly 100,000 is now inhabited by around 10 million people. As the entire urban settlement comprising of residential and commercial areas depends on ground water to meet its water demand, it is no wonder that the resource has transformed from a state of abundance to one of scarcity.

The situation as of today, paints a grim picture of this city of orchards. While the train and metro have affected the orchards, policy neglect and systemic inefficiencies have exacerbated the water crisis. Despite the consequences of Indus Water Treaty, river Ravi that still contributes about 82% of the main recharge to Lahore aquifer, is being dumped with effluents from 1400 industrial units. The remaining orchards have dried out, the surface water is totally unfit for use and the current water table drop rate is about 0.55 meters a year. Moreover, the groundwater depletion is exponentially intensifying over time with a spatial pattern such that the city center faces the highest annual depletion. According to a recent report by WWF, the water table depth in the central part of the city has gone below 40 m, and it is projected that by 2025 the water table depth in most areas will drop below 70m. If present trends continue, the situation will become even worse by 2040, when the water table depth in a significant part of the study area will drop below 100m or more. It is not hard to imagine that extraction of water from these depths will not be technically or financially feasible.

Immense scarcity of water would be a direct consequence of this deterioration of groundwater which shall also result in increasingly expensive water extraction. It is apprehended that this would cause a 25% decline in agricultural production, signifying that not only we will be increasingly water stressed but poverty and hunger will also exacerbate as an implication. The current path of urban development that can boast for its modernistic approach is unfortunately devoid of sustainability concerns and has therefore led us to a crisis neither the founders nor the developers of this city could have predicted.

The Lahore Water and Sanitation agency caters to the Public Water supply in the city with its 484 tube wells pumping ground water to meet the rising demand. With rising development, the demand of public water has risen drastically over the past few decades but the natural supply of ground water has remained the same regardless of the demand. This evidently creates a shortage in the market for public water and raises concerns for intervention into the market. Recently a project aimed at relieving the stress on ground water resources through induction of surface water down the Ravi syphon has been initiated. However, the geo physical divisions of rivers following the Indus basin Treaty which does not provide the customary protections for the lower riparian state, has resulted in low level discharge with high turbidity in the river, thereby casting doubts about the sustainability of the project.  

The current demand side measures used to curb wastage of water by WASA are negligible. With only 7% metered connections, the public water agency is bound to charge a flat rate system to the remaining 93% of its consumer base. This method coupled with tariffs last revised in 2004, leads to huge welfare loss as consumption is far from socially optimal level. WASA, by charging a per cubic meter cost which is half from its production cost is not only providing an incentive to waste water but is costing a colossal sum of eight billion rupees to exchequer that it gets as subsidies to cover the systemic inefficiencies.

Although some may argue that water demand is by and large price inelastic, yet we can safely hypothesize that current mechanism of both the flat rate charge and the lower than marginal cost water tariff do not incentivize water conservation for the consumers of Lahore. Water being a natural resource suffers from the “tragedy of commons” and its management may entail a coercive mechanism as suggested by Garrett Hardin. Sustainable provision of drinking water in urban settlements and ability of water utilities to meet requisite levels of supplies is contingent upon the underlying regulatory mechanism controlling the resource use. A combination of measures; alternate sources of supply, demand management through market based prices and appropriate designed non-price conservation programs may help in averting the approaching crisis.


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