On fertile grounds

Efficient ways to use water for agriculture is the only option in the coming days

On fertile grounds

Pakistan’s economy depends a lot on agriculture which thrives mainly on the flow of water in the Indus River System. It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of the flow in the Indus comes from the melting of seasonal and permanent snowfields and glaciers.

As per official figures, Pakistan has a total of 210 million acre feet (MAF) water of which 70 MAF is underground and the remaining 140 MAF is the available water. The utilisation of the run-off water is too low mainly due to the mismanagement of water resources and lack of storage facilities.

The country is facing a shortage of 40 MAF, which may rise drastically over the years. The reason for this is the need to grow more and more food for the increasing population of the country. The per capita water availability, which was 5,600 cubic meters at the time of the creation of Pakistan, has come down to around 1,000 cubic metres at the moment.

The faulty downstream management of the available water also leads to its wastage. It does seep into the ground and replenishes the aquifer but, at the same, this seepage may result in water logging and salinity in areas where the water-table is high and under-ground water is brackish.

In this backdrop, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) -- the body that oversees sharing for river water resources among provinces -- has suggested that the government should divert all the development spending to building water reservoirs to overcome the approaching water crisis.

In a letter written to the government, IRSA has asked the government to freeze the country’s entire Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) for five years and spend these funds on the construction of major water reservoirs on a war footing. The authority has urged the government to at least go for the construction of 22 MAF storage capacity at the earliest.

Though this appears to be too ambitious a plan keeping in view the development needs of the country, water experts call for immediate investment in the irrigation infrastructure of the country.

The modern world is turning to intensive farming, which is also called ecological farming where the whole families are involved and they grow trees and multiple crops on the same piece of land.

Sindh Taas Water Council Pakistan Chairman, Engineer M Suleman Khan, says there shall be a well-devised irrigation policy aimed at improving the efficiency of water resource management. He says the modern world generates economy worth $3 billion, India $1 billion and Pakistan around $0.5 billion from one MAF water.

Explaining his point, he says Punjab gets 54 per cent share of water resources and gives 80 per cent of the country’s agricultural input. On the other hand, he says, Sindh gets around 40 per cent water but its contribution to agriculture is low. A lot of this water, he informs, is wasted in fields and results in water-logging and salinity as the water distribution system is not up to the mark.

Khan supports building of Kalabagh Dam on the grounds that it will have the capacity to harness floodwater. "The Bhasha Dam, on the other hand, will store the routine river water flow," he adds.

It was after the construction of Tarbela dam that Swabi, Mardan, Risalpur, etc, could get water via Pahur Canal and became key producers of sugarcane and tobacco. "D I Khan got water from Chashma Right Bank Canal and agricultural land prices there skyrocketed. Similarly, the Pat Feeder Canal that links Balochistan with Guddu Barrage has helped agriculture flourish in areas like Jaffarabad. Khan says Sindh benefited from Tarbela dam and will also benefit a lot from KBD. The issue is political only and not technical," he says.

The utility of water resources can be improved by increasing the yields and there are different ways to achieve it. Sumaira Ishfaq, an expert in agricultural innovation and farm management skills, believes obsolete farming practices should be done away with to decrease pressure on water resources. She works with the Potohar Organisation for Development Advocacy (PODA) and oversees a foreign-funded project in Muzaffargarh which trains women farmers.

Ishfaq says "the project beneficiaries have successfully doubled the yield of wheat from 25 maunds per acre to 50 maunds per acre by sowing the right type of seed and adopting modern farming practices."

She says the soil analysis of every piece of land was done and the most suitable seed variety prescribed. "Normally, the farmers do not take care of this aspect and even ridicule the agricultural experts who want to guide them," she adds.

Tanveer Arif, CEO of Karachi-based Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE), says water needs of different provinces are different and should be tackled differently. He says Balochistan does not fall in the Indus plane, therefore, it should have small dams to store rain and flood water that can be used for agriculture.

He suggests that flood irrigation should be done away with, especially in Sindh. "Here, the water table is high and ground water is brackish. The water directed to fields mixes with brackish underground water and results in water-logging and salinity," he adds. The land of Sindh is also not suitable for tubewells for the same reason and that is why most tubewells in the country have been installed in Punjab.

He says the financial institutions must finance latest agricultural products which use less water, he suggests.

Arif says the modern world is turning towards intensive farming, which is also called ecological farming. In this type of farming, he says, whole families are involved and they grow trees and multiple crops on the same piece of land. "This way the output is quite high," he adds.

Najam Abbas, spokesman, Punjab Agriculture Department, says they carry out desilting exercise every year to increase the storage capacity of canals and to ensure that water reaches the tails. Besides, he says, the farmers of the province have been engaged in the management of watercourses as members of Farmers’ Organisations (FOs). "The FOs have elected members in their management committees and they try to ensure that every farmer gets his due share. The disputes are dealt there and then and water theft cases are dealt with strictly," he says.

On fertile grounds