Pakistan needs multidimensional and intersectoral policy approaches for energy-water-food security integration

A key facet of the water-energy-food nexus in Pakistan is the heavy dependence of agriculture on groundwater irrigation, write Haris Mushtaq and Taimoor Akhtar for South Asia Monitor 

Pakistan's agriculture land

Owing to the introduction of modern technologies over the past two decades, the three sectors water, energy and food have become inextricably linked. This has made the integration of energy with water and food security the need of the hour for policymaking, in addition to the prioritized attention to the energy sector alone. 

Water generates electricity in hydropower plants, cools thermal and nuclear power plants, and is used to mine coal and extract oil and gas. Food production increasingly requires energy to pump groundwater and process agricultural produce. Furthermore, natural gas is consumed in manufacturing nitrogen fertilizers which, in turn, are used for boosting crop production. As the resources remain constrained and demand grows due to ever-mounting demographic pressure, these interconnections between water, energy, and food are becoming increasingly significant.

A key facet of the water-energy-food nexus in Pakistan is the heavy dependence of agriculture on groundwater irrigation. Crop production in Pakistan’s heartlands, irrigated by an intricate network of canals, now increasingly depends on electricity-powered groundwater pumps to fulfill irrigation needs. Groundwater, directly and indirectly, irrigates more than 70 percent of the area in Pakistan (Qureshi, 2020).  Groundwater alone and in conjunctive use with canal water irrigates approximately 77 percent of cultivable areas in Punjab (PDS, 2013). 

The pumping systems have not only provided crucial access to water for meeting the growing demand for irrigation, but they have also led to increased dependence of agricultural production on energy(Siddiqi & Wescoat, 2013). The interlinkages between irrigation water, energy, and agricultural production need to be further studied with enhanced data collection and statistical vigor.

Sustainable livelihood, boosting production
To cater to the growing demand for groundwater and subsequently the energy intensity of agricultural production, many current projects are targeting farmers. The goal is to provide a sustainable livelihood and assist off-grid farmers to boost production. 

Some of these projects include solar-powered irrigation systems and the installation of tube wells. The demand for these projects has drastically increased over the last decade as they offer a cost-effective and sustainable energy solution to the farmers \(Closas, A., & Rap, E. 2017).

Crucial factors such as the project's overall economic cost and groundwater availability are often overlooked in policies aimed at promoting solar-based groundwater pumping systems through incentives or subsidies. There are many disadvantages of groundwater over-extraction on the environment. Ignoring these disadvantages results in further groundwater depletion, which severely impacts the livelihood of individuals living there. Therefore, monitoring groundwater and other resource extractions is of utmost importance.

The number of installed electric tube-Wells (TWs) have almost doubled in Pakistan from 2005 to 2017. Moreover, groundwater extraction per installed electric TW is more than two times diesel TW. Policy action is required to modulate electric TW extraction, and subsidies on agricultural electric subsidies need to be revisited.

Integrated resource management

Isolated management of resources in a single sector ultimately leads to problems in other sectors. From a policy perspective, a well-integrated and simultaneous approach is essential to address multiple issues; interlinkages of various sectors should be incorporated in the policy evaluation. The Vision 2025 Agenda and the Pakistan government's commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals could provide potential platforms to support a broader range of perspectives than is usually possible within sector-bound agencies.

Firstly, political commitment needs to ensure sustainability for long-term energy, water, and food security for the nation. Next comes the exchange of information and knowledge through cross-organizational linkages to identify energetic policies and action plans. Finally, the collection of precise and detailed information is needed for a robust and effective policy.

An interactive dashboard ( has been developed which illustrates the contribution of electric tube wells on the energy-water interface of Pakistan's water-energy-food nexus. The visualization estimates the annual volume of pumped groundwater from energy consumed by electric tube wells. Groundwater extractions gave water table depth and energy consumption. Additionally, it captures the resulting implications on groundwater sustainability and subsidized agricultural energy demands.

The interactive dashboard further allows the users to change the parameters of the water table, pump efficiency, and transmission losses to understand and gain key insights into the impact of groundwater extraction by subsidized private electric Tube-Wells (TW) on the overall water footprint in Pakistan.

The way forward, given the interrelations of the three chief sectors namely, food, energy, and water, is a multidimensional and intersectoral policy approach. Data-driven and data-backed analysis will ensure the success of such policies. The illustrative groundwater-energy nexus dashboard offers a workable instance of said policy solutions. It has the potential to inform well-rounded and multisectoral policymaking.


Closas, A., & Rap, E. (2017). Solar-based groundwater pumping for irrigation: Sustainability,
policies, and limitations. Energy Policy, 104, 33-37.

PDS. (2013). Punjab development statistics - 2013. Punjab: Bureau of Statistics.

Qureshi, A.S. (2020). Groundwater Governance in Pakistan: From Colossal Development to
Neglected Management. Water, 12(11), 3017.

Siddiqi, A., & Wescoat, J. L. (2013). Energy use in large-scale irrigated agriculture in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Water International, 38, 571–586.

(Haris Mushtaq is a research analyst at Global Change Impact Studies Centre, Islamabad. Taimoor Akhtar is a Water Resources Management Consultant, Canada. The views expressed are personal)