When the elected coalition government emerges from
the present political turbulence, one of its first concerns could be to
address Pakistan's water crisis.
Sandra Postel has identified an important lesson of
history in arguing that while irrigation has been a powerful tool of human
advancement for 7,500 years, yet improper management of water resources
has caused most irrigation based civilizations, from Mohenjo_Daro to ancient
Mesopotamia, to perish. As the people of Pakistan look ahead into the
new millennium, the question is: Shall our fate be any different? In this
article we shall identify the key features of Pakistan's water crisis
so that we may take the steps necessary to survive and prosper.
Irrigation and Agriculture
Perhaps even more than in the period of the Mohenjo
Daro civilization, irrigation today is vital to sustaining Pakistan's
agricultural production and the economy as a whole. Irrigated land supplies
over 90% of agricultural production, while agriculture in turn fulfills
most of the country's food requirements, contributes 26% of the GDP and
employs 54% of the labour force. Agriculture is also a source of raw materials
for major domestic industries particularly cotton products which account
for 80% of the value of exports.
Even though irrigation is the life blood of Pakistan's
agriculture and indeed its economy, yet successive governments in the
past have allowed Pakistan's irrigation and drainage systems to deteriorate
to a critical level.
Poor maintenance has resulted in the gradual deterioration
in the canal irrigation system whose carrying capacity of water has been
reduced due to lack of adequate de-silting and crumbling of canal banks.
Delivery efficiency (from the canal head to the root zone of crops) is
now as low as 35 to 40 percent. The annual diversion of water from the
rivers into the surface irrigation system is about 93 million-acre feet
out of which only about 37 million-acre feet actually reaches the root
zone of crops. The remaining 56 million-acre feet is lost to canal seepage,
spillage, breaches and watercourse losses.
Loss of such a large part of the surface water not
only deprives farmers of water for crops but also contributes to water
logging and salinity.
Major Problems of Pakistan's Irrigation
Some of the major problems of irrigation in Pakistan
may be identified as follows:
* Water Scarcity due to inadequate reservoir capacity
Pakistan's river flows are highly seasonal (85% of
annual flows are in the summer season). Yet Pakistan does not have adequate
reservoir capacity in its irrigation system to store waters at peak flows.
Consequently cropping intensity is exceptionally low. (For example out
of the 16 million hectares of irrigated land only 5.7 million hectares,
35% are double cropped).
* Low Delivery Efficiency of Irrigation
Due to poor maintenance, the average delivery efficiency
is only 35 to 40% from the canal head to the root zone, with most of the
losses occurring in the watercourses. This huge loss of surface water
is a major factor in creating water logging and salinity. A significant
proportion of the water lost through such seepage from the irrigation
system flows into saline groundwater reservoirs thereby making it impossible
for re-use by tubewell irrigation. Since Pakistan's agriculture depends
almost completely on irrigation, in the face of increasing shortages of
water in the future, improvement in the delivery efficiency of irrigation
is crucial to sustaining agricultural production.
* Problem of Drainage, Water Logging and Salinity
The surface drainage problem of the Indus Plain is
inherent in its flat topography, and the associated lack of natural drainage
channels and porous soils. This problem is compounded by construction
of roads, railways and flood embankments without adequate provision in
the design to facilitate natural drainage flows. Under these circumstances
irrigation without adequate drainage leads to rising water tables and
hence salinity and water logging. Therefore it is vital for sustainable
agriculture to construct adequate drainage systems for the removal of
excess water and salt from the soil. During the 1960s a number of Salinity
Control and Reclamation Projects (SCARPs) were undertaken. Despite these
efforts about 30% of the Gross Commanded Area (GCA) is water logged and
14% is salt affected.
* Inequitable Distribution of Irrigation Water
Contrary to the assumption in the original design
of the irrigation delivery system, in reality, water does not reach users
at the tail end of the system. This is to a large extent due to reduced
carrying capacity of canals resulting from inadequate maintenance. Illegal
pumping from canals by big landlords who are able to bribe or pressurize
the local irrigation department into silence, adds to the inequality of
* Inadequate Operation and Maintenance of the Irrigation System
Pakistan's irrigation and drainage systems have been deteriorating because
of inadequate maintenance. This is partly due to inadequate budgetary
allocations for this purpose associated with financial mismanagement of
successive governments since the 1990s. Perhaps equally important is the
deterioration of institutions responsible for maintenance of the irrigation
system. The gap between operations and maintenance (O & M) expenditure
requirements and recoveries through water charges, has now reached 57%
for Pakistan as a whole, and over 80% for NWFP and Baluchistan.
The Policy Challenge in the Water Sector
The reality of Pakistan's water crisis requires all
stakeholders to dispel the out dated and erroneous belief that water is
an abundant resource and a "free public good". Public action
would have to be based on the proposition that water is in fact a scarce
resource and therefore the principle of allocative and productive efficiency
must be applied in framing water policies.
In dealing with Pakistan's water crisis, four key issues need to be urgently
1. Build new dams for increasing the reservoir capacity of the irrigation
system and provide a seasonally flexible supply of water to farmers. This
would be necessary to increase cropping intensity, where at the moment
only 35% of irrigated area can be double cropped.
2. Improve the delivery efficiency of irrigation. Currently only 35% of
water diverted from rivers, actually reaches the root zone of crops.
3. Develop improved drainage systems and control salinity and water logging.
Currently 30% of the Gross Canal Commanded Area is water logged and 14%
is affected by salinity.
4. Develop new Operations and Maintenance (O & M) systems which can
achieve (i) the necessary levels of efficiency in maintenance of canals
(ii) greater equity in water distribution (iii) finance the required O
& M expenditure through user charges (iv) decentralize O & M to
enable farmer organizations to manage water courses.
The issues identified in this article represent a challenge to innovate
and manage water resources efficiently. It is a challenge to national
leadership as much as to the global community. The economic well-being
of the people depends on how successfully Pakistan can confront the challenge
of the water crisis.