Keeping the Water Flowing to Pakistan’s Cities

Project Result / Case Study | 6 July 2015

Though access to safe drinking water has improved, Pakistan struggles to keep up with increasing demand from a growing urban population.

Farah Hasan runs a tea shop and laundry business just off the road that links Islamabad’s international airport with the adjacent city of Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s third largest. There’s always a tap running somewhere on his premises and a reliable water supply is key to his enterprise.

“Before the [water] improvements, it was very hard to run this business, we never knew if we had enough water to complete the washing order, or we would be halfway through a day’s work and the supply would suddenly be gone”

Farah Hasan, tea shop and laundry business owner

“Before the [water] improvements, it was very hard to run this business, we never knew if we had enough water to complete the washing order, or we would be halfway through a day’s work and the supply would suddenly be gone,” he remembered.

Those were the days before the Government of Pakistan, with ADB assistance, launched a program to vastly improve water and sanitation in Rawalpindi. More than a decade old now, the six-part project included improving 100 tube wells and drilling 20 new ones, boosting the city’s water output to 32,000 cubic meters a day.

The project also sought to reduce the cost of supplying water to domestic and business users in the city by fixing the many leaks in the water supply system, constructing new water mains, and installing water meters to record usage rates in some parts of the city.

Growing demand for water

Rawalpindi’s main water and sanitation plant, the Rawal Lake Filtration Plant, where the city’s water is treated prior to consumption, was rebuilt with ADB assistance in 2001. It’s still in good shape but today struggles to cope with growing demand.

“When completed the new plant could provide water for everyone. But today, water requirements in [Rawal] Pindi are currently around 49,000 cubic meters a day,” said Azizullah Khan, Deputy Director of Water Supply at the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Agency (RWSAA). “This is above our capacity and is mainly due to unplanned urban migration. Often we cannot cope.”

The challenge of supplying water and sanitation services in many cities in Pakistan is compounded by the fact that providers struggle to cover the costs of operation and maintenance due to low tariffs and poor system efficiency, with many dependent on government subsidies and external funding.

“Our problems are compounded by the fact that 30% of the water we produce here is lost due to leakage or theft,” said Saadat Ali, an RWSAA Assistant Director. Often the water that supplies the treatment plant is inadequate when levels in the Rawal Lake reservoir are low in the hottest months.

Pakistan has increased its share of the population with access to an improved water source from 85% in 1990 to 92% in 2010. The share with access to improved sanitation increased from 27% to 48% during the same period, according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation.

Despite these gains, poor quality drinking water remains a significant development challenge in Pakistan. According to a survey on behalf of the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources published in 2012, almost nine out of 10 water supply schemes in Pakistan provide water that is unsafe for drinking due to microbiological contamination.

Illegal connections

“We just take the regular water supply for granted now, we are lucky! Though there are interruptions.  All around many people do not pay anything for water,” said mother-of-three Farzana Durrani, pointing to a permanent puddle by her front door she says is due to a faulty illegal water connection nearby.

Experts believe much more needs to be done to promote access to reliable, clean water in the country. Professor Mohammad Bilaf Asif, an environmental engineer from the University of Engineering and Technology, Taxila, says the government should legislate against abuse of water, which includes the sinking of illegal wells and nonpayment of utility charges for water.

“People should be prosecuted when they steal water. There is also serious undercharging for water,” Asif said. “An average household pays just 90 Pakistani rupees [$0.83] per month whereas the break-even cost is nearer 1,000 rupees [$9.50] per month. The result is resources are scarce to improve existing supply systems.”

Reforming the water sector

To address this gap, ADB continues to work in partnership with the Government of Pakistan to improve water and sanitation delivery. "Professionalizing water management and transforming utilities into performance based service providers are two of ADB’s major urban reform priorities in Pakistan," said Mian Shafi, a Senior Project Officer in ADB’s Pakistan office.

Farah Hasan says things are still much better in Rawalpindi than before the water supply improvements, but more investment is needed in water to keep pace with the growing city. “[Water] supplies are sometimes intermittent again, and this, combined with electricity brownouts, makes life hard for us,” he said.