Technical Assistance to the Government of Punjab on Revitalization of the River Ravi Basin by the Asian Development Bank

The Ravi River is one of the six transboundary rivers of the Indus River system. It flows from the Himalaya in northwestern India through eastern Pakistan. The river merges into the Chenab River and then the Indus, which flows to the Arabian Sea. About 50 million people live in the basin within Pakistan. This includes 24 million urban dwellers in Punjab’s major cities of Lahore (population 11 million) and Faisalabad (4 million), and in about 70 other urban areas. The basin experiences huge flow variations, ranging from 10 cubic meters per second in the dry season to 10,000 cubic meters per second in the wet season.

The river provides critical ecosystem services that support Punjab’s economy. The river forms part of the Indus Basin Irrigation System within Punjab, the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system, and irrigates 2.9 million hectares of agricultural lands that account for about 30% of Pakistan’s agricultural cultivation. The river’s previously rich biodiversity hosted at least 31 fish species, among other wildlife, that offered livelihoods for Punjab’s rural poor. Its partial flow through the Lahore Canal also has recreational and cultural value to residents of Lahore.

Heavy pollution. Despite its economic value, the river basin has become heavily polluted since the 1990s. Punjab’s cities, industries, and agricultural areas have developed without effective infrastructure to control, capture, and treat their discharges of polluted water, and without effective policies and regulations in place to reduce the pollution at source. This problem is not unique to the Ravi basin but is made worse there because of its large population and many farms, cities, and industries. Pakistan treats only about 1% of its urban wastewater. The country partnership strategy notes that Pakistan’s environmental management is weak and ineffectual, with root causes including policy and regulatory gaps, insufficient monitoring and enforcement, technical and capacity constraints, low public awareness, and low levels of investment.

Pollution of the river basin and its health risks are not well documented. The river is biologically dead (i.e., lacking dissolved oxygen) along much of its reach downstream of Lahore, according to a 2009 report by the Punjab EPD. The report noted major pollution sources as household wastewater, industrial effluent, agricultural runoff, and solid waste. A 2014 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan) assessed the situation of the river near Lahore, mapping major urban drains and industrial discharges, and concluded that the Ravi is Punjab’s most polluted river.

Major risks. Notwithstanding lack of data, experts agree that pollution has been creating major health, environmental, food, and water safety risks that hurt Punjab’s economy and worsen its poverty. Poor sanitation and wastewater management in Pakistan cost 3.9% of gross domestic product in 2006, of which about 90.0% was health related. In 2015, more than 50% of all reported diseases in Punjab were waterborne. Pakistan has insufficient water resources, and poor water quality makes this worse. Farmers, for instance, are forced to use polluted water to irrigate their crops, which creates scarcity of safe food as heavy metals and harmful chemicals can accumulate in crops irrigated with polluted water. Fish and other wildlife cannot live in a dead river, depriving rural poor people of a critical food source and livelihood. The river’s recreational and cultural value has also declined, with media reports characterizing it as a “dumping pit” and “sludge carrier.” Pollution has a direct economic impact on local water suppliers as well. The Water and Sanitation Agency in Lahore, for example, reportedly needs to draw groundwater from depths of about 200 meters – with major pumping costs – to avoid pollutant contamination at shallower depths.

Pakistan is among the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, and climate change may alter the river’s flow and increase floods and droughts that worsen pollution risks. Regional climate change models project that, by mid-century, the river’s seasonal flow variations may increase because of rainfall variability, glacial melt, and rising water demand from higher temperatures. Climate change could raise the risk of extreme floods or droughts, which pose major economic threats to the basin’s 50 million people. Droughts and reduced flows can concentrate pollutants in the river, while floods can create pollution spikes by washing polluted soil and solid waste into the river.

Required actions. Risks will worsen without urgent action by the government and society. The government needs to strengthen its policies, institutions, and regulations to improve water quality management in the basin. Punjab’s cities, industries, and agricultural areas need to invest in pollution control infrastructure and services. Policies and investments also need to be resilient to reduced river flows and increased flow variability that may be caused by climate change.

Punjab has requested ADB support to ensure that its actions avoid repeating past failures. Pollution in the Ravi River has been a known problem since at least 1995, though past clean-up efforts rarely moved beyond the concept stage. Two national water sector strategies from 2002 and 2012 highlighted the need to clean up the river and included investment proposals, but these have not materialized. A government-endorsed wastewater treatment feasibility study prepared with financial support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 2009 recommended a $413 million investment, while a similar study by a French consultant in 2011 recommended a $118 million investment. Neither project went ahead (footnote 13). In 2012, the Lahore High Court ordered the establishment of the Ravi River Commission to help clean up the river. The commission reviewed the situation and prepared a report recommending a low-cost ($500,000) bioremediation plant in Lahore as a first step (footnote 13). Soon after, however, the Lahore Development Authority proposed a $3 billion waterfront urban development project for the river that could preclude the treatment plant and pose further environmental risks. These organizations have been debating the issue in court and progress has stalled.

Technical and institutional constraints prevented the success of these efforts. The government has struggled to prioritize pollution risks to date because of lack of data and awareness on the risks and impacts of pollution, and cost-effective ways to reduce pollution. Solving the problem also needs a coordinated, multistakeholder response to reduce pollution at different sources, including local governments, industries, and urban service providers in basin cities and towns. The Ravi lacks a river basin management agency or its equivalent that could coordinate its many stakeholders and decide on issues such as the conflicting bioremediation and waterfront development projects mentioned in para. 10.

With growing public awareness of the pollution crisis, the government of Punjab has appointed new environmental managers in the EPD and committed to take actions for the river basin with ADB assistance. The EPD has already budgeted for a contribution of up to PRs200 million to support this effort. The proposed TA aims to contribute to addressing the pollution crisis by improving monitoring and enforcement capacity, filling regulatory and institutional gaps, raising awareness on pollution risks and cost-efficient ways to reduce pollution, and increasing levels of investment and public priority toward this crisis.

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