The falling groundwater aquifer levels across metropolitan Lahore are a cause for concern for municipal water managers and the sustainability of this source could only be ensured through preservation of land comprising agricultural tracts and open spaces. Efficacy of rainfall infiltration is owed to undeveloped land and asphalted/concreted areas dissipate this movement. Reduced flows in River Ravi do not make up the deficit in infiltration to the aquifer and neither are the irrigation channels capable of a pronounced order of seepage. Accordingly, developing proposals for enhanced recharge would undoubtedly be on the strength of the undeveloped lands that would not be encroached with settlements in the future.
Lahore is a primate city of the region, and for that matter the entire Province. It is disproportionately larger than any other settlement in the urban hierarchy. In terms of population, Lahore is 23 times bigger than the second ranking settlement in the hierarchy, i.e. Sheikhupura. The sheer size and activities of Lahore become a strong pull factor, bringing additional residents to the City to become even larger and disproportionate to smaller cities in the Region. In fact urban expansion has resulted in merger of boundaries of many settlements resulting in the formation of conurbations and corridors. This particularly holds true for private housing societies that have mushroomed across all arterial corridors of Lahore since 1985.
LDA is the controlling authority for the private housing schemes and it does perform its duty by applying Private Scheme Approval Regulations Act 2014. According to these rules, LDA restricts land use distribution in these schemes and ensures that at least 7 percent area is reserved for parks and open spaces. However, given the amenity lifestyle of these societies coincident with prolific water use, this stipulation is inadequate. In fact, what Lahore needs is a modicum of emergency control measures in urban expansion and a stop to in-migration to curtail unimpeded access to groundwater use.
And then there are the slums that proliferate across every recess in the system. Their residents enforce undocumented mechanisms on water abstraction through shallow private bores prone to biological contamination. Other forms of egress on open land is owed to both planned and decentralized industries that cohabit the major traffic corridors like Multan Road, Ferozepur Road, Raiwind Road, G.T.Road, Sheikhupura Road and Defence Road along Hudiara Drain.
It is rather unfortunate to note that while LDA’s proposed land use structure is documented through the Integrated Master Plan to the year 2021 and the private schemes have been asked to follow the Structure Plan (comprising corridors and preserved land) in their plans, organizations such as Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and major land developers such as Bahria Town have made interventions against the provisions of IMPL-2021. DHA has expanded their residential phases from Phase V to Phase X towards the east and Bahria Town has been developed in the south beyond the area marked for development in the Master Plan. The Bahria Town schemes have somehow avoided the LDA’s control and their layout plans are not approved by LDA. These developments constitute serious repercussions for the sustainability of aquifer.
It must be realized that the ancient flow lines of groundwater that originate from the Himalayan foothills and traverse underneath the Indian Punjab make their entry into Pakistan at the northeastern corner of Lahore District. These lines are minimal across the eastern corridor of Lahore (areas east of BRBD Canal). Until early 60’s, the entire aquifer was suitably nourished by these flow lines which began to be disturbed through agricultural and municipal pumpage. The more the abstraction in the northern half of the system, greater the scarcity in groundwater storage further south and in the reaches below the Raiwind Road. The future corridors of expansion are, thus, beholden to how much water gets abstracted in the north.
However, the heart of metropolitan Lahore (Gulberg, Shadman, Ichra, Mozang and Anarkali) is already a dead beat with a gaping hole in the aquifer reaching to a depth of 70 m. Tubewells continue to be installed in disregard to the minimum spacing necessary to avoid their mutual zones of influence and, with an average 16-hr operation per day, the cone of water table depression is unlikely to go away. The situation is perilous for the jewel in the real estate of Lahore!
Presently, a solid 30% of the District is fully developed with another 6% in rural settlements. It is amazing how the intensity of disturbance caused by municipal water abstraction over 1/3rd of the land mass could destabilize the system. What is required is a moratorium on green spaces, not just limited to Lahore but also for Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib, Kasur and Ferozewala. Furthermore, LDA must protect, at all cost, the sanctity of the regime north of the Ring Road as underneath lie the very lifelines of all water use within Lahore. The minimum desired privilege for this land mass is a forested cover with no future settlements.
Contrary to the conclusive evidence about the long term ‘exploitable’ potential of groundwaters underneath Lahore, vested interests continue to hype about the aura of perpetual growth in metropolitan services. However, aside from the litany of grossly misleading political compulsions, nature will take its course if drastic adjustments in land use are not effected both at the policy and governance level. Before, we can jump to big dams, it is imperative that we save our big cities. The lifeline could be restored with a bold realization of the absolute imperatives such as limits on urbanization, controlled water harvest regimes (like well centers), reduced per capita water utilization, intermittent supplies through overhead storages, distribution through closed loops and an effective tier of water accounting from the source to storage to consumer.
For water managers, the strategy should encumber both land and water resources. Over the short term, legislation and its enforcement in terms of both land and water use would protect further slide in aquifer levels. The recovery, likely to take 10-15 years, would be a combination of interventions both at the level of the source and supply. This is cogent with water demand that would be the subject of the concluding piece under Part III of this discourse. (to be continued)