In March 2018, Tarbela and Mangla dams, two of Pakistan’s largest water storage reservoirs, simultaneously neared dead level for the first time in 15 years, coinciding with a prolonged heat wave across the country. Citizens responded with a plethora of short-term water conservation measures to tide over the dry spell until the return of the annual monsoons which would partially replenish Pakistan’s rivers. However, acute recurring water shortages may herald more sinister water crises in the near future unless immediate steps are taken to implement integrated water management policies at the federal and provincial levels.According to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Sources, a combination of climatic changes coupled with unrelenting demand from overpopulation and overdevelopment is contributing to the worsening water situation in Pakistan. Agricultural irrigation consumes around 95 percent of the nation’s freshwater resources. Production and export of water-intensive crop-based products, including rice and cotton, are putting increasing pressure on the country’s already stressed water resources while limited water storage capacity means that Pakistan is ill-prepared to deal with fluctuations in water availability due to changing precipitation patterns.The Asian Development Bank’s climate change profile for Pakistan shows that in the past few years, the duration of the winter season has gradually shortened whereas the volume of annual snowfall in the northern areas of Pakistan is declining. Rising summer temperatures across Pakistan are contributing to an increased demand for water during historically lean periods of water availability. Water-intensive industry and construction demands are also rising with increased economic activity in the country. Coupled with a false sense of entitlement (water is a free resource, and we can use as much as we want), all these factors spell catastrophe for a country of over 200 million people, threatening water, food and energy security. According to the National Water Policy 2018, glacial melt contributes 41 percent to Pakistan’s river flows followed by rainfall (27 percent) and snowmelt (22 percent). Historically, the timing and volume of rainfall in Pakistan has been erratic,and a changing climate means that future rainfall patterns will become increasingly unpredictable and, therefore, cannot be relied upon as a stable freshwater source. A country-wide water crisis could occur suddenly and stealthily unless proper planning and conscious targeted action is taken now to prevent a Day Zero situation when taps will run dry.It has happened before. Cape Town, South Africa, a relatively affluent city was predicted to run dry in the summer of 2018.The water crisis resulted from three consecutive years of low rainfall and business as usual consumption patterns. Failure to take immediate remedial action on warfooting may result in adverse consequences such as water riots, famine, land degradation, and desertification in the years to comeWhen voluntary restrictions on water consumption failed to stall the problem, the government introduced a series of water conservation policies and initiatives to force consumers to use less. Using taps to fill pools, water gardens, or wash cars is now illegal in the city. Failure to observe the guidelines can result in hefty fines. Even the Indian cricket team visiting Cape Town for Test matches in January was asked to limit showers to two minutes under new crisis restrictions. The government is also constructing desalination plants to make seawater drinkable and exploring options for wastewater recycling.In Pakistan, relying exclusively on large dams to store water for dry spells will not address the root causes of the water problem. Downstream environmental impacts of reduced water flow to the Indus delta are already affecting coastal communities, and the construction of large dams results in a number of adverse environmental impacts.Dr William Young, lead water resource management specialist at the World Bank believes that Pakistan has enough water to last at least another 50 years if managed efficiently. He believes that Pakistan should shift its focus from water scarcity to managing water demand and producing more from each drop of water. Pakistan needs to make water allocation more efficient and fair and offer incentives to encourage wise use of scarce water.The National Water Policy emphasises demand-side management and outlines several water management practices to enhance water use efficiency including the lining of canals and watercourses to reduce losses; introducing technology to improve water productivity such as drip irrigation; promoting behavioural change through education and targeted water-conservation media campaigns,and instituting a more realistic water pricing structure.There is much that canbe done. One hopes that the next government will prioritise integrated water resource management as outlined above in order to avert an impending disaster and set the country on the course of sustainable development. Failure to take immediate remedial action on a war footing may result in adverse consequences such as water riots, famine, land degradation and desertification in the years to come.The writer is an environmental consultantPublished in Daily Times, July 17th 2018.