How data can help Karachi quench thirst

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But Pakistan is not facing water problems just because of climate change. Water conservationists say that poor resource management, depletion of groundwater and insufficient water storage have pushed the system to a precarious point.

This is most evident in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city, which lacks hundreds of millions of gallons of water every day. Nevertheless, the price of water has been underestimated: there is no metered use, and many sources are unregulated.

Concerned about the future of urban water use, Lehman started working for AquaAgro, a technology start-up company established in 2016. The company’s premise is simple: use data to help farmers better choose irrigation plans. Their equipment includes a solar box and a thumb-sized soil measuring instrument that can monitor weather conditions such as temperature, humidity, and pressure, and measure the moisture content of the soil. All the data is uploaded to the portal, and farmers will then receive mobile alerts to notify them when to water their crops.

At AquaAgro’s pilot farms, crop yields increased by 35% and water consumption was reduced by 50%. But when Rehman and his colleagues contacted farmers about their products, they found that few people were interested. “This is not a viable financial model,” Rehman said. “Because water prices are too cheap, farmers have no incentive to reduce water consumption.”

“It’s like a game, everyone loses in the end.”

But water is no longer a rich resource as it used to be. Farms around Karachi rely on groundwater to grow crops, and now use everything from sewage to water trucks to stolen surface water. Karachi’s main water utility company complained that a large amount of the city’s water was stolen from a 3,200-kilometer long canal system that distributes water from a lake about two hours outside the city. “It is generally believed that people in farms, theme parks and informal settlements are using water without authorization,” said Farhan Anwar, an urban planner in Karachi. However, he added, “Documentation is difficult to find.”

Rehman hopes that AquaAgro can help solve the water crisis in Karachi. If the farms around the city use less water, it may leave some water for his children and his children’s children. But by the end of 2019, AquaAgro’s team concluded that their product may never be profitable. Their flow of funds has dried up and disbanded soon after.

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