Can data help quench the thirst of Pakistan’s most populous city?

But Pakistan isn’t facing a water problem purely because of climate change. Water conservationists say a mix of resource mismanagement, groundwater depletion, and inadequate water storage have pushed the system to a precarious point.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city, which has a daily water shortfall of hundreds of millions of gallons. Despite that, water is consistently underpriced: usage isn’t metered, and many sources are unregulated. 

Worried about the future of water in the city, Rehman started working for AquaAgro, a tech startup formed in 2016. The company’s premise was simple: use data to help farmers make better choices about irrigation schedules. Their device, which included a solar-powered box and a thumb-size soil meter, could monitor weather conditions like temperature, humidity, and pressure and measure the soil’s moisture content. The data was all uploaded to a portal, and farmers then received mobile alerts informing them when to water their crops. 

At AquaAgro’s pilot farms, crop yields increased by 35% and water usage reduced by 50%. But when Rehman and his colleagues reached out to farmers about their product, they found few were interested. “It wasn’t a viable financial model,” Rehman says. “Because the price of water was so cheap, farmers weren’t motivated in cutting down their water consumption.”

“This is like a competition where eventually everyone loses.”

But water is no longer the abundant resource it used to be. Farms around the Karachi area that relied on groundwater to grow their crops now use everything from sewage streams to water trucks to stolen surface water. Karachi’s primary water utility company complains that a large amount of the city’s water is stolen from a 3,200-­kilometer canal system that distributes water from a lake about two hours outside the city. “There’s a general perception that there is unauthorized use of water … by farms, theme parks, and people in informal settlements, among others,” says Farhan Anwar, a Karachi-based urban planner. But, he adds, “documentation is hard to find.”

Rehman hoped that AquaAgro could help with Karachi’s water crisis. If farms around the city used less water, perhaps there would be some left over for his children, and his children’s children. But by the end of 2019, the team at AquaAgro had concluded that their product might never be profitable. Their funding streams had dried up, and they disbanded soon after. 

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