Facing Water Challenges in the Cholistan Desert, Pakistan: A WWDR3 Case Study

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The presence of a semi-nomadic population and 2 million head of livestock in the middle of a fragile desert ecosystem is encouraging the government to explore new ways to improve livelihoods by increasing availability of water resources through capture, storage and treatment.


Focus Areas

Water Supply and sanitation, IWRM

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance


Cholistan is the largest of four major deserts of Pakistan. It is bordered on the south by the Thar desert in Sindh province and on the east by the Rajasthan desert in India (Map 2.4). The Cholistan desert covers about 26,000 km2, which corresponds to 26% of the 110,000 km2 of the country’s total desert area and 3% of its overall surface area. Typical Cholistan vegetation consists of species adapted to a limited water supply. They provide fodder for the inhabitants’ livestock and protect the soil against wind erosion. Over the years, continued overgrazing and cutting of shrubs and trees for firewood and temporary shelters have reduced the vegetative cover, so that only about 20% of it remains.

Rainwater Harvesting and Migration

While most of the rainfall is received during the monsoon months of July through September, smaller quantities of rainfall sometimes occur in winter. The average annual rainfall in the desert ranges from 100 to 200 mm. Consequently, freshwater availability is very limited. There are no perennial or ephemeral streams, and most of the groundwater is saline with a medium to high range of dissolved solids that make it generally unfit for drinking (Akram and Chandio, 1998). High salt concentration also makes groundwater impossible to use even for saline agriculture without costly treatment. Because of the extreme aridity, the local people and their livestock are migratory (PCRWR, 2004). The only source of freshwater for about 110,000 inhabitants and their approximately 2 million head of subsistence livestock is the occasional rainfall. Fortunately, the average annual potential of 300 million m3 for rainwater harvesting is more than sufficient to satisfy the combined water demand of the people and livestock. To make the best use of this potential the herders have found ponds known locally as tobas. These store runoff water for use during the dry periods. Harvested rainwater is also stored for household use in large circular or rectangular tanks called kunds.

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Health concerns

Kunds are concrete structures built to store rainwater for human consumption. There are about 200 kunds in the Cholistan desert. Generally, the stored water stays clean unless there are external contaminants. Analysis of water samples from several kunds showed that water was being polluted by human and livestock waste transported in runoff.

Drought and water availability

There is no reliable hydrometeorological data from which to draw conclusions about the frequency and duration of droughts. Estimates based on the recollections of longtime residents of the Cholistan desert indicate, however, that droughts are quite common and can last from a few months to a few years. Because of the limited availability of surface and groundwater resources, locals and government officials are working together to develop the potential of rainwater harvesting to meet current water needs and provide for future economic development. Various storage units, such as tobas, kunds and ponds, are in place. However, while tobas remain abundant, only 600 of the 1,600 existing ones are functional due to high sedimentation rates. Kunds are less susceptible to this kind of problem, but water quality issues limit their use. To increase storage capacity and reduce contamination, the government has built ponds equipped with slow sand filters, which have performed well. This has increased rainfall storage to 4 million m3 per year. Given the 14 million m3 in water supply capacity of wells, available water resources are sufficient to meet the annual water demand of inhabitants and their livestock. Nevertheless, the global scenario of climate change and climatic variation and their effect on water resource availability, coupled with the increasing price of fossil fuel (mainly used for pumping), has prompted the government to consider low cost solutions based on renewable energy sources.

Essentially, In an arid environment where there can be as few as three rains a year, freshwater resources become critical not only for socio-economic development but also simply for survival. While Pakistan’s government has been making efforts to find good-quality groundwater and create rainwater storage units in parts of the Cholistan desert, water scarcity persists because of the size of the desert, the poor quality of the groundwater, high evaporation rates, contamination, the low storage efficiency of tobas and the reduction in their capacity due to siltation. Severe water scarcity forces the people of the Cholistan to migrate with their herds in pursuit of water and grazing land, which entails social and economic hardships. Although authorities have carried out projects intended to diversify the economy, animal husbandry remains the main source of livelihood. The success of integrated approaches designed to boost the inhabitants’ health and the economic opportunities available to them, while also improving the quality and availability of water, will require determination and continuous support on the part of the government.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions


See also

Akram, M. and Chandio, B. A. 1998. Conjunctive use of rainwater and saline groundwater for desertification control in Pakistan through agroforestry and range management. Journal of Arid Land Studies, Vol. 7S, pp. 161–4.

Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR). 2004. Pre-project socio analysis of 25 selected settlements in Cholistan desert. Islamabad, PCRWR. (Publication No. 130/2004.)

Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR). 2009. Cholistan Desert (Pakistan) Case Study.

External Resources


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