How data can help quench Karachi thirst

But Pakistan is not facing a water crisis due to climate change. Water conservationists say that poor hygiene, dehydration, and water shortages have made the process more difficult.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Karachi, a densely populated city in Pakistan, where water is scarce every day for hundreds of millions of gallons. Even so, water is always cheap: consumption is not limited, and many sources are unmanaged.

Concerned about the future of water in the city, Rehman started working at AquaAgro, which was founded in 2016. The company’s goal was simple: use data to help farmers make better decisions for irrigation policies. Their device, equipped with a solar panel and ground meter the size of a thumb, could monitor temperatures such as temperature, humidity, and speed and measure soil moisture. All of this was entered on the portal, and the farmers received handwritten notifications informing them when to irrigate their crops.

At AquaAgro experimental farms, yields increased by 35% and water consumption was reduced by 50%. But when Rehman and his associates approached the farmers about their products, they discovered that few people were interested. “It was not a good way to make money,” says Rehman. “Because water prices were so low, farmers were not encouraged to limit their use of water.”

“This is like a race where in the end everyone loses.”

But water is no longer a major source. Farmers around the Karachi area that depend on groundwater for their crops are now using everything from toilets to water trucks to the surface water supply. A large water company in Karachi complains that much of the city’s water is stolen from the 3,200-mile-long canal that distributes seawater for about two hours outside the city. “There is a lot of speculation that there is illegal water use … by farms, parks, and people living in unstable areas, among others,” said Farhan Anwar, a city planner in Karachi. But, he adds, “writing is hard to find.”

Rehman hopes AquaAgro can help address the water crisis in Karachi. If the fields around the city were to consume much of the water, there would be only enough water for his children, and his grandchildren. But by the end of 2019, the AquaAgro team had decided that their business would not be profitable. Their river of income had dried up, and they soon disappeared.

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