Experimenting with Water in Gilgit Pakistan

Caroline Knowles

Gilgit-Baltistan landscape

Gilgit-Baltistan’s capital city, Gilgit (population 0.2 million), in northern Pakistan, nestles in a picture perfect landscape sculpted by water: surrounded by the majestic, snow-capped Karakoram mountains, by glaciers, and by exquisite turquoise lakes in deep valleys. Looking at all of this water from the mountain road that leads from Islamabad, it is hard to imagine that water could possibly be a major issue in Pakistan. And yet it is. A recent report reveals that 44% of Pakistanis do not have access to clean water[i], and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that in the twenty-first century, 785 million people globally still do not have safe drinking water. This water-sculpted landscape suggests that it is not just about whether or not water is available, but how it is managed and reaches people that matters.

Gilgit is the perfect place to experiment with water. The Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) has developed over 400 rural water projects covering 100,000 households since the 1990s in this area. Their approach is bottom up management in close collaboration with local communities’ needs, coupled with the best engineering design. Water sources like springs, tested to see that they comply with WHO standards, are enclosed to prevent contamination. Supply pipes leading to storage reservoirs and then to households are buried 1 m to keep them from freezing in winter. Engineering work is financed by a mix of donor and Gilgit-Baltistan Government contributions and user fees. In this experiment in public and private finance, households pay connection charges and flat-rate monthly fees, which are set at levels most people can afford. Those who can’t pay can apply to be subsidised, or make payment in kind, by working as part of the installation labour force, digging trenches, for example. Monthly fees finance regular maintenance. This is often a problem with infrastructure projects: they break down when they are not properly maintained. Equality of access is baked into this system, with each household given one connection. Once this system is set up it is handed over to local communities who own, manage and maintain it through their representatives on the Water and Sanitation Committee.

Water and Sanitation Committee

No one has looked into whether these 1990s schemes are still operating as they were intended, and whether local people were happy with their water supplies. A new research project, funded by the British Academy under its Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme, and led by Jeff Tan at the Aga Khan University — Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) in London, and local partners at Pakistan’s Karakoram International University (KIU) and the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH), set out to do just that[ii]. Researchers were sent out to do engineering surveys to see if schemes were still working properly and delivering water to WHO standards. 97% of them were. Researchers discovered that active Water and Sanitation Committees are the key to well-functioning systems: it is the human infrastructures which keep the pipes and the taps working. Social researchers were tasked with finding out if people are happy with their water. They are.

Checking the water pipes

But the key question for this research is, can this successful community-owned and managed system be scaled up to deliver water in Pakistan’s rapidly expanding and socially diverse cities and not just in small and socially cohesive communities? While the data is still being analysed, it shows that urban projects have much higher levels of social diversity. Recent arrivals have created mixed-sect neighbourhoods and language diversity too. Data show higher capital and operational costs as a result of mechanisation, greater pipe lengths and labour inputs. It also points to lower levels of community participation in household attendance at meetings. This suggests that urban project will require additional measures to encourage participation along with ongoing support from AKAH and the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan in training and financial support with major repairs. This is an ongoing water experiment with potential to increase provision of water across Pakistan and in countries facing similar issues.


[i] Pakistan Council for Research in Water Resources

[ii] AKU-ISMC (London): Jeff Tan (principal investigator), Steve Lyon (co-investigator), Matt Birkinshaw and Anna Grieser (post-doctoral researchers), Sabrinisso Valdosh and Fatima Islam (research assistants); KIU (Gilgit): Attaullah Shah (co-investigator), Manzoor Ali and Karamat Ali (researchers); AKAH (Gilgit): Saleem Khan, Saleem Uddin, Yasmin Ansa and Mushtaque Ahmed

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy’s GCRF Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulation of material objects — some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul. Her most recent book, Serious Money: walks in plutocratic London is published by Penguin (2022)




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