Mar 29 - Apr 4, 2010

Water scarcity is becoming an ominous issue facing the agriculture economy of Pakistan. While this poses a serious danger to the agriculture production around the country, low riparian areas of Sindh are under a direct threat of water scarcity as flows in the Indus River are not consistent.

Indeed, one of the world's largest rivers wears a deserted look these days. Low flow from upstream imply corrosion of fertile lands and degradation of biodiversity in the areas due to seawater intrusion, thereby pushing the farming and fishing community further into the poverty-trap.

Sindh contributes over 30 per cent in the Pakistan's agriculture GDP. More than 56 per cent of its rural population depend on agriculture activities for survival. Sindh's shares in total national agriculture are wheat (15 per cent), cotton (23 per cent), livestock (28 per cent), sugarcane (31 per cent), rice (42 per cent), and marine fish (70 per cent). The poverty level in the province is alarming. According to an estimate, 33 per cent of its population live below the poverty line. This situation is worst in rural Sindh and more than 53 per cent of rural population are hardly able to make both ends meet. Water is a lifeline for the province and for the national agriculture too.

Millions of households around the low riparian Sindh earn their livelihoods from farming and fishing. The increasing sea intrusion is on the one hand damaging the fertility of farmlands by making them saline and this is endangering the lives of species (flora and fauna) that are of commercial value for the community on the other.

Lack of release of freshwater downstream to tail end causes sea intrusion that according to an estimate has caused salinity in 2.5 million acres agriculture lands in Sindh. Low water flow is expanding salinity-affected lands and undermining mangroves, which are sanctuary and spawning-ground for fish and variety of commercially-beneficial species. Besides, it is affecting livelihood of people in the surrounding areas. It is mandatory to release 10 million acres feet (MAF) to push ahead sea intrusion while IUCN makes 27MAF essential to save ecology of Indus delta.

The question arises is that are low water flows downstream cause of shortage of water, or water mismanagement leads to disparity in water distribution across the provinces or canals of different parts of the provinces in the country?

Agriculture experts say Sindh is not receiving the due shares of water from upper streams. They are of the view that water in the riverbed of Indus River is siphoned off and diverted to irrigate agriculture lands in the Punjab. This is also a reason that triggers criticism against the construction of Kalabagh Dam in Sindh. The proposed dam construction on Indus River has remained a bone of contention between Punjab and Sindh. Punjab advocates the construction of KBD to enhance hydropower generation capacity in the country. The impact of the further blockage of river flows to Sindh - by any means -- is a major concern for already crippling agriculture of Sindh. Seeking amicable solutions, politicians and agriculture experts want concerns of provinces be removed before reaching any decision regarding such an oft-debated public issue.

Although, Sindh water problems are not the outcomes of only low-level of water in the Indus River, but available water is also not distributed appropriately within the province. The latter issue is more common in the country because of inefficiency of irrigation authority. The inter-provincial water distribution disagreement is also reflected in the intra-province water distribution.

Indus Water Accord 1991 is said to have defined effective parameters and formulas on water distribution among the provinces. Many who vehemently oppose the construction of KBD, canals, or any other projects on the Indus River express their satisfaction over the text of this accord, said to have been designed with consensus of all provinces, allocating appropriate quota amongst the provinces.

They are seeking implementation of this accord in its true essence to solve perennial inter-provincial water distribution issue.

According to the accord, out of total allocation of 114.35 MAF Sindh was allocated 48.76 MAF. Prime Minster Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani while talking to chief ministers of the provinces recently assured that water distribution issue between the provinces would be resolved amicably.

How and when this will happen remains to be seen. Further delay will not only aggravate the woes of the Sindh's agriculture sector but it also sounds a death knell for the national economy.