Links Feedback Home Home
 Curriculum Vitae
 Topic-wise  Classification
 Published Work
 Papers Presented
 Newspaper Articles
Daily Times
The Dawn
Herald Magazine
The News
Journal - NGORC
The Friday Times
The Nation
The Express Tribune
 Guest Book
The Water Crisis
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: THE NEWS
Dated: March 3, 2001

A key lesson of history is that while irrigation has been a powerful tool of human advancement for 7500 years, yet improper management of water resources has caused most irrigation based civilizations, from Mohenjo_Daro to ancient Mesopotamia, to perish. As we stand at the threshold of a new millennium the question is: shall our fate be any different? To quote an adage of abiding relevance, "Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it". The Calendar of Sayyed Engineers (Private) Limited is devoted to examining the nature of Pakistan's water crisis in a global context so that we may learn from history. The purpose is to identify the key features of the water crisis so that we may take the steps necessary to survive and prosper.


In the last few years economists have begun to recognize that water which was once abundant, is now scarce, and a water crisis has emerged in many countries around the world. This is particularly so in the grain growing regions of Central and Northern China, North West and Southern India, The Indus Basin Region of Pakistan, much of the Western United Sates, North Africa, The Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. Today more than one billion people lack access to adequate water. In many areas water rather than land availability will be the main constraint to agricultural production in the 21st century. As Sandra Postel has pointed out "without increasing water productivity in irrigation, major food producing regions will not have enough water to sustain crop production".

The world's farmers today face an annual water deficit of 160 billion cubic meters, which is the amount used to produce 10% of the world's grain. As spreading water shortages threaten to reduce the global food supply by 10%, it is now being realized that unless the problem is addressed these water shortages could lead to hunger, civil unrest and even wars over water. Therefore it may be dangerously unwise to presume that there will be enough exportable grain to meet the import needs of water short countries at an affordable price.

Most of the growth in population suffering from water/food shortages will be in South Asia where the majority of the world's poor reside and where two nuclear armed countries (India and Pakistan) confront each other. Thus the challenge the world now faces is the efficient use and conservation of its water resources. This will require new forms of economic analysis, new forms of water management and new institutions of governance. In terms of economic principles the two key concepts in this context will be allocative and productive efficiency in the use of water resources . This will mean giving up the old view that water is a free public good (in Pakistan for example the price of water for the individual user is so low that it is more economic for him/her to waste water than to invest in its efficient use). At the level of management, the key issues would be to develop operations and maintenance (O & M) systems for improving the delivery efficiency of irrigation, greater equity in water distribution and to finance O & M expenditures through user charges. At the level of governance new institutions will need to be created for decentralized management of water courses through community organizations and developing adequate drainage systems to minimize water logging and salinity.


Perhaps even more than in the period of Mohenjo Daro, 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 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.

The improvement of irrigation efficiencies has become a major policy imperative in view of the fact that the extensive margin on irrigated acreage has been reached and future agricultural growth will have to rely on improving the efficiency of water use and other inputs.

In the ensuing section of this article we will briefly indicate how the slow down and increased instability of agricultural growth is rooted in the deteriorating water and soil conditions as a prelude to identifying some of the major problems of irrigation.


The level and pattern of output growth in the crop sector during the 1990's when viewed in a longer-term perspective suggest the emergence of institutional constraints to sustainability, such as irrigation water and related soil degradation. The average annual growth rate of major crops declined from 3.34 percent during the 1980s to 2.38 percent during the 1990s (see table 1). At the same time, the frequency of negative growth in some of the major crops during the last 17 years has been significantly higher than in the preceding two decades. If we consider wheat, which is by far the largest of the major crops (over 30 percent value added in major crops), we find that average annual growth rates have been steadily declining since the onset of the "Green Revolution": From the high point of 7.42 percent in the 1960's to 2.33 percent in the 1990's (see table 2). Underlying the decline in the growth of wheat output is a steady decline in the growth of wheat yield per hectare: From 4.38 percent in the decade of 1960's to 1.81 percent in the 1990's (see table 2). The frequency of years in which an absolute decline in wheat yield per hectare occurred was 7 in the period 1980 to 1997, compared to 5 in the preceding two decades.

Under conditions of declining input productivity, when higher input use/acre is required to maintain yields, small farmers with fewer resources are likely to suffer a greater than average decline in yields, compared to large farmers. At the same time, due to lack of savings to fall back on, they are relatively more vulnerable to bad harvests under conditions of unstable growth. Consequently, slower and more unstable growth may be accompanied by a tendency for growing inequality in rural income distribution, poverty and unemployment. This is why it is important to initiate policies to counteract these tendencies in both the farm and off-farm sectors of agriculture .

Underlying the phenomenon of a gradual deceleration of growth and increased frequency of negative growth years may be the emergence of a number of institutional constraints, the two most important ones being (i) reduced water availability due to deterioration in the canal irrigation system, (ii) degradation of soils due to depleting soil nutrients and soil erosion associated with improper agricultural practices.


Water Scarcity due to inadequate reservoir capacity

In view of the fact that Pakistan's river flows are highly seasonal (85% of annual flows are in the summer season). Pakistan does not have adequate reservoir capacity in its irrigation system to store seasonal waters. Consequently cropping intensity is exceptionally low. (For example out of 16 million hectares of irrigated land only 5.7 million hectares 35%) are double cropped.

Low Delivery Efficiency of Irrigation

Due to over use and 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 flat topography of the Indus Plain and the associated lack of natural drainage channels, semi arid climate and porous soils combine to create a surface drainage problem. This problem is compounded by construction of roads, railways and flood embankments which obstruct natural drainage flows. Irrigation without adequate drainage in such an environment, inevitably leads to rising water tables and hence salinity and water logging. Therefore it is vital for the sustainability of agricultural production to take steps for constructing adequate drainage systems to remove excess water and salt from the soil. During the 1960s a number of Salinity Control and Reclamation Projects (SCARPs) were under taken. 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 adds to the inequality of distribution.

* Inadequate Operation and Maintenance of Irrigation System

Pakistan's irrigation and drainage systems have been deteriorating because of deferred maintenance associated with tight budgetary constraints and declining administrative capability. The gap between O & M expenditure requirements and recoveries through water charges has been increasing, and has now reached 57% for Pakistan as a whole and over 80% for NWFP and Balochistan.


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 addressed:

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% 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 essay represent a challenge to think clearly, innovate and manage water resources efficiently. It is a challenge to national leadership as much as to the global community. The survival of our civilization, as indeed, global peace and economic stability depend on how successfully we can confront the challenge of the water crisis.

Improved irrigation efficiency through community management:

The PIEDAR experience

The Pakistan Institute for Environment, Development Action Research (PIEDAR) is an independent NGO registered under the Societies Act, which began a pioneering support program in the Khanewal district of Southern Punjab in 1992. Using the Participatory Development Methodology, it catalyzed the formation of village organizations of poor peasants and initiated a process for enabling the village communities to build hygienic drinking water facilities, a wide range of micro enterprise projects, (operated in many cases by women) for income generation, increased savings, development of home schools for women, and finally lining of water courses for increased irrigation efficiency.

The PIEDAR approach was different from the approach of the government's department of on-farm water management in terms of three features: (a) PIEDAR established multi-purpose VOs instead of single purpose water users associations across a number of villages. (b) Between 30 to 33 percent of the investment cost of the water course lining was financed from the collective savings of the VOs. (c) Instead of the brick lining technique of the government department, PIEDAR used pre-cast concrete segments, manufactured in a local factory. With brick lining, due to non-congruence of the parabolic curve of the water channel and the curvature of the brick lining, cracks emerge after a year, resulting in large water leakage through the spaces between the bricks. By contrast, the pre-cast concrete segments whose internal curvature coincides with that of the water course are not only much more efficient insulators but also have a much longer life (50 years) compared to brick lining.

PIEDAR has been engaged in fostering community based water course management since 1995 and has now achieved coverage of 30 villages and six water courses. The COs have provided 25 percent of the cash cost of the investment from their collective savings and have also contributed the cement and labour themselves. (The total contribution of the poor peasants to the lining of water courses has been estimated at 30 to 33 percent in addition to the labour involved in maintenance). Such a contribution by the villagers and their interest in maintenance is unprecedented in any on-farm water management project under government auspices.



Period 1980-81 to 1989-90 1990-91 to 1996-97
Average Annual Growth 3.34% 2.38%

Note: * At constant 1980-81 factor cost

Source: Federal Bureau of Statistics, Government of Pakistan.

Calculations: Akmal Hussain. op.cit




1960-61 TO 1969-70 7.42 4.38 3
1970-71 TO 1979-80 4.43 3.18 2
1980-81 TO 1989-90 3.30 2.06 4
1990-91 TO 1996-97 2.33 1.81 3

Source: Pakistan Economic Survey 1997-98, Government of Pakistan, Finance Division,

Economic Advisor's Wing, Islamabad. Calculations: Akmal Hussain. op.cit

Designed & Developed By INTERSOL International