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Water: The Imperative Of National Survival
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, November 14, 2002

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 distribution.

* 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 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% 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.

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