Pakistan's Water Crisis Is a Ticking Time Bomb

A boy draws drinking water from a well using a hand pump in Peshawar, Pakistan March 4, 2016. Some 650 million people, or one in 10 of the world's population, have no access to safe water, putting them at risk of infectious diseases and premature death. Dirty water and poor sanitation can cause severe diarrhoeal diseases in children, killing 900 under-five a day across the world, according to United Nations estimates. World Water Day, marked this year on March 22, highlights various concerns about the world

Pakistan's long-festering water crisis is threatening to upend its politics.

When it comes to Pakistan, President Trump’s Twitter feud with one of America’s most important partners in the fight against terrorism has dominated the news. But beneath the headlines, a massive water crisis is unfolding that has profound implications for the country’s stability and security. Rapid urbanization and conflict combined with corruption, crime and years of mismanagement have left a massive proportion of the population without access to clean water. And now, this long-festering crisis threatens to upend Pakistan’s politics.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Pakistan’s water crisis is that until recently, the country had been doing well in connecting more of its citizens to water supply and sanitation networks. From 1990 to 2015, the percentage of the country’s population with access to clean water increased from 86 percent to 91 percent. But in a reversal of what happens in most countries, almost all of this improvement occurred in rural areas—the percentage of urban residents with access to clean water actually declined from 97 to 94 percent over the same period.

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Only a few other countries, most of them war-torn places like Syria and Gaza, have experienced similar reversals in providing clean water to cities. And while the causes of Pakistan’s water crisis are complex, the country’s political instability has played a key part. Pakistan is urbanizing at a rapid rate of over 3 percent annually—the highest rate in South Asia. The causes of this fast-moving urbanization are deeply troubling, with climate change and the fight against Muslim extremists acting as key drivers. Given this ever-quickening tide, Pakistan’s cities have had trouble providing basic services, including housing and water, to new urban residents.

But the problem is worse in the water sector because rampant corruption and mismanagement keeps prices high and coverage rates low. Because Pakistan’s cities can’t keep up with growing water demand from new residents, many urban-dwellers are forced to buy water from private tanker trucks. And because tankers often bring water from far away, prices are high, and tanker “mafias” raise them still further by illegally siphoning off water from municipal sources and reselling it at extortionate prices. These criminal gangs represent a serious challenge to Pakistan’s local authorities. As a Karachi official admitted, “These illegal hydrants are established by armed people, so it is very difficult for . . . staff to just dismantle them.” But authorities have also been accused of turning a blind eye to tanker mafias: no less an authority than the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court was quoted as saying, “there is someone behind the scenes at work who is minting money from [the tanker mafias].”