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Water crisis and its impact on Sindh agriculture

Apr 02 - 08, 2001

The agriculture sector of Pakistan, particularly the heavily irrigation-fed arid province of Sindh, is bracing itself for the acute water shortage as summer crop season starts on April 1.

The important role Cotton and Rice play in the economy of the country can hardly be over-emphasised. Sindh contributes significantly in the production of Cotton and Rice, the two major cash crops which contributed 2.9 per cent and 1.6 per cent respectively to the GDP of the country in 1999-2000. In addition, Cotton contributes 11.7 per cent while rice accounts for 6.3 per cent in value added agriculture. Cotton traditionally contributes over 60 per cent while Rice accounts for 6.1 per cent to the total export earnings over the last five years. Both Cotton and Rice are produced in the summer crop season of Kharif, one of the two principal crop seasons besides winter crop season, Rabi.

Sindh contributes about 20 per cent to the total cotton production and also produces a significant quantity of Rice, primarily IRRI 6 rice. Pakistan produced 5.156 million tonnes of rice in 1999-2000 which depicted an increase of 10.3 per cent over the previous year. Of the total 4.6 million tonnes rice produced in the country in 1998-99, 2.6 million tonnes was Basmati the long grain variety known for its aroma the worldover and which is grown only in Pakistan and that too only in Punjab. IRRI accounted for the rest of 2 million tonnes, the bulk is grown in Punjab though Sindh also contributes a substantial quantity. A small quantity of IRRI is also produced in areas of Balochistan province adjacent to Sindh.

While Basmati has put the country on the world Rice map, IRRI the comparatively cheaper variety developed in Philippines and as such derives its very name from International Rice Research Institute, Manila  plays a vital role in the economy of the country. Though rice loving Pakistanis prefer to use high-priced Basmati, IRRI is used by a significant portion of the population as a flour some 0.6 million tonnes last year due primarily to affordable prices.

The preference for Basmati, and its heavy domestic consumption, also explains the reason for its comparatively low exportable plus compared to that of IRRI. Only 500,000-600,000 tonnes of the total 2.6 million tonnes of Basmati produced in 1998-99 was available for exports compared to 1.2-1.5 million tonnes of the total 2 million tonnes of IRRI produced during the same period. In terms of percentage, only 19-23 per cent of total Basmati produced was available for exports compared to a much greater export surplus of 60-75 per cent for IRRI. IRRI production in the country remains restricted to No.6 variety though Philippines has developed improved varieties which stand at some two dozen today.

Basmati not only fetches a much higher export price but is also enjoys a greater demand in high-priced markets such as the US, the UK, UAE, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. Bashir Sheikh, who looks after Rice at the Export Promotion Bureau, told PAGE that EU countries prefer to import Basmati brown rice strictly under the abatement scheme which is aimed at protecting the interests of their rice mills. They encourage import of brown rice, entirely Basmati which is subjected to a lesser rate of duty compared to white milled rice the finished rice which EU countries also import though in negligible quantity. The abatement scheme benefits the rice mills in the EU in two distinct ways not only the brown rice imports enjoy lesser duty but it helps them to further process and polish it in two separate products, the brawn or the husk and the white milled rice. The former is used as the cattle feed while the later is used for human consumption.

The above facts are meant to highlight the importance of Cotton and Rice in the economy of Pakistan and the due contribution which Sindh is making in it. The acute water shortage, however, threatens these and other important crops as Kharif season starts from April 1.

Water crisis

So, just how bad is the situation? PAGE talked to Muhammad Idris Rajput, Secretary Irrigation and Power Sindh, said that water is just not available in the required quantity either for drinking or agricultural purposes including cotton sowing season which starts from April 1.

Putting the present water requirement for Sindh at 40,000 cusecs (the unit for measuring running water in cubic feet per second be it tap, discharges from dams, reservoirs, rivers, etc.) he said that only 10,000-12,000 cusecs is available. This quantity is just not enough for the cultivation of rice which requires large amount of water when its sowing season starts in mid-May pushing the water requirement to 125,000 cusecs. At present we have only enough water for cotton cultivation and that too till only April 15, he added. The acute water shortage, thus, poses serious problems particularly for Sindh which has saline underwater useless for agricultural as well as drinking purposes rendering even the boring useless.

The situation, he said, is all the more alarming as cotton sowing unlike can not be delayed for months. Unlike cotton which requires precise sowing, rice sowing can be delayed for as much as two months, as was the case last year due to water shortage which has worsened even further this year. Idris said that though rice sowing can be started late it results in low yield per area. However, in case of Sindh the late rice sowing and the resultant comparatively lower yield is somewhat lessened due to the fact that the low water level allows roots of rice plants more oxidation to gain better size and weight.

A landlord told PAGE that the worst water shortage has forced farmers in agricultural areas of Sindh not to cultivate crops one after the other as has been the always a tradition. For the first time ever in the history of the province, he added, there is such an acute water shortage that water is not available even for drinking, not to mention agriculture.


Idris said that according to Water Accord 1991 Sindh is supposed to get 48 million acre feet ( unit of measuring stored water) per year including 34 maf for the summer season starting April 1. However, calculations available show that only about 50 per cent of the 34 million acre feet will be available this summer much less than the allocated 48 maf.

At present only 10,000 cusecs to 12,000 cusecs of water is available in the province which meets only one-fourth of its requirement of 40,000 cusecs. This is the quantity of water available to meet all the province's need be it agriculture, drinking or other. With the start of Kharif season and beginning of cotton sowing in April and start of rice season from May 15 the situation is feared to get much more worse. The question which is troubling the officials is how to meet the demand for drinking water as well as for agriculture which would jump manifold in the coming months. Unless, of course, the much prayed for rains pour down from the sky, or warm weather or 'warm rains' help melt the snow frozen on the mountains in the northern areas. All these scenarios, needless to say, requires infinite mercy of Benevolent Allah.

As is, rains and hailstorms in certain areas of Punjab and province of North West Frontier Province on 28th and 29th of this month provided the people with a sense of optimism. According to figures provided by Idris water inflows at four Rim Stations River Indus at Tarbela, River Kabul at Attock, River Jhelum at Mangla and River Chenab at Marala increased from 32,100 cusecs to 32,100 cusecs a day after rains which splashed many areas in the north on March 28. The all welcomed, and awaited, increased inflows would take about a forthnight to reach Sindh.

Meanwhile, the position at barrages in Sindh remains precarious to meet just 29 per cent of the requirement as on March 29. The province's water withdrawals at Guddu, Sukkur and Kotri totalled 10,100 cusecs compared to 35,200 cusecs as per the Water Accord 1991. This meant a drastic shortfall of 71 per cent on the day under discussion.

With the reports of more rains in Punjab and NWFP on the 29th, the situation is expected to get a bit more better giving water-parched people increased optimism for more rains.

Contingency plan

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Government of Sindh, has prepared Kharif Contingency Plan. Putting the total requirement of irrigation water at 52.181 million acre feet during Kharif 2001 season the Sindh Minister for Irrigation and Power told the press on March 3 that the water shortage in Rabi (winter) season would continue till March 15. He said that minimum water level at Tarbela would go down to 1,369 feet on March 5 and Sindh would be left dependent solely on Indus River System and water received from River Kabul. During March 21-31 total water availability would be 28,200 cusecs 21,300 cusecs from Indus flow and 6,900 cusecs from Kabul flow.

The Plan recommends many measures to deal with the water crisis including providing water where available to standing crops like wheat, sugarcane, orchards and chillie farms. It also recommended extending the cotton sowing schedule in many areas Mirpurkhas from 15.3-30.4 instead of 15.4-30.5; Hyderabad-Sanghar from 20.4-30.5 instead of 10.4-30.4; Nawabshah to entire May (no change); Sukkur-Ghotki from 15.5-15.6 instead of 1.5-15.6; and Dadu from 1.5-15.5 (unchanged).

The plan also calls for strict water saving measures like supplying 20 acre inches of water instead of the required 36 acre inches for the cotton crop.

The plan also proposed installation of 5000 tube-wells by the Irrigation Department at the head of the canals, distributaries and water courses to supplement the requirement of irrigation water. In addition, it also recommends installation of 5,000 additional tube-wells in the private sector by providing a subsidy of Rs 40,000 per tube-well to the farmers in which Government's share will be Rs 200 million.

The average discharge of 5,000 tube-wells in private sector will be one cusec each which will be enough for 50 acres of cropping thus making 5,000 cusec available to the farmers not only this year but also in the years to come.


The acute water shortage for human consumption and agriculture necessitates the need to treat it with the dignity it deserves. Use it, reuse it but never abuse it in a wasteful ways that we have become accustomed to or it is bound to take a toll, a very heavily toll, in ways we have never imagined possible. Not the least of which is the shrinking the size of our crops major and minor alike.