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Water shortage and its effects on agriculture

There is a need of smaller dams which can be constructed in smaller time and less expensive

From SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI, Islamabad
Jan 29 - Feb 04, 2001

While extending army control over the affairs of Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) from March 2001 to Dec. 2002, the Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf has directed the authority to initiate, at top priority basis, feasibility studies for the development of new water storage and hydro power resources in the country.

The Chief Executive who chaired a high level meeting to review WAPDA performance in Islamabad last week appreciated the army operation during the last 2-year in raising revenues and curtailing transmission and line losses by almost 50 per cent. He, however, declined WAPDA's request to allow further increase in power tariff saying that it has already reached beyond the reach of poor people. He stressed to economise on expenditure and further cut line and transmission losses. The Chief Executive directed WAPDA's Chairman to undertake on war footing the projects which are needed immediately to meet shortage of water for irrigation purposes which was threatening government efforts to develop agriculture. He emphasised the importance of smaller dams which could be constructed in a short-time and were less expensive.

The Indus River System Authority (IRSA) has warned the provinces that they would receive about 40 per cent less water for the Rabi crop. Describing the present water shortage as being worst in the history caused by prolonged dry spell, IRSA has not come out with any other solution or plan of action except rationing of available water. This is no way is going to solve the crises which is going to have far reaching consequences. After a lot of struggle the country achieved self sufficiency in wheat last year but now it is feared that these gains would be lost this year due to paucity of water. The situation becomes more alarming in view of the on going long dry spell which is going to badly affect particularly the rain fed areas.

All international forecasts have warned of a damning drought and food shortages in the region due to water shortage. These reports have stressed the need of new water reservoirs in the country to ensure adequate supply of water during crunch time.

However, political difficulties, resource starvation and lack of any clear policy direction suggest that situation may worsen further. Absence of commitment on the part of the government to evolve a consensus on the issue of Kalabagh Dam is more worrisome. It would be difficult for any future political government to handle this unpopular issue. It was expected that the present government would take this bold initiative in the greater national interest. But the opportunity is almost lost.

The official report has mentioned following crops-wise summary which indicates that all major crops have got affected due to less availability of water.

Cotton: Cotton crop, which is the mainstay of exports having a weight of almost 66% was targeted to be sown in the area of 2.930 million hectare with a production target of 9.7 million bales. The latest information suggests that the area sown under cotton has surpassed the target by 1.5% i.e. 2.973 million hectare.

The area sown under cotton in Punjab was 5.8% higher than the target (2.433 million hectares as against the target of 2.3 million hectares). The sowing of cotton in Sindh was however, seriously affected by shortage of water. As against the target of 630,000 hectares, cotton was sown in the area of 522,000 hectares, i.e. 7.2% lower than the target. Higher sowing in Punjab more than compensated the loss in area sown in Sindh.

The provisional estimates as reported by the provinces to the Federal Committee on Agriculture (FCA) suggest that the size of the cotton crop is 9.5 million bales as against the target of 9.7 million bales and last year's production of 11.24 million bales. In other word, the size of the cotton crop is 15.4 lower than that of last year.

Water shortage and attack of American boll worm and white fly are responsible for the decline in cotton production this year. Sugarcane: The area under sugarcane was targeted at 1.0 million hectare and production was targeted at 51.6 million tons 11.4% higher than last year's production. The latest information suggests that the area sown under sugarcane was 7.5% below the target (925,000 hectares against 1.0 million hectares). In Punjab, the area sown was 10.6% below the target, mainly due to the shortage of water.

In Sindh the area sown under sugarcane has surpassed the target by 5.2% (263,000 hectares against the target of 250,000 hectares) mainly because it escaped the shortage of water as crop is sown there in September.

In N.W.F.P., the area sown is at the last year's level. The provisional estimates, as reported by the provinces suggest that the size of the sugarcane crop is 41.8 million tons as against the target of 51.6 million tons and last year's production of 46.33 million tons.

In other word, sugarcane production is 12.3% lower than last year. Rice was targeted to be sown in 2.411 million hectares area and production was targeted at 5.1 million tons. The sowing time for rice in Sindh was June/July and for Punjab it was July/August. As a result of the shortage of water, 78% area was sown under rice crop in Sindh. While area sown in Punjab was 3.4 above the target, it was more or less at the last year's level in NWFP and Balochistan.

The provisional estimates, as reported by the provinces to the FCA meeting, suggest that rice production is 4.5 million tons as against the target of 5.1 million tons and last year's production of 5.156 million tons. In other words rice production is 9.8% lower than last year.

Wheat is a rabi crop. The target for area sown and production are fixed for 2000-01 at 8.43 million hectare and 20 million tons, respectively. Provisional estimates of wheat production will be available by May 2001. The production exceeded 22 million tonnes last year.

For the last few years we have been experiencing severe climatic changes with unexpectedly longer dry spells even during wet seasons of the fall and winter resulting in reduced storage in water reservoirs, the capacity of which has also come down significantly due to nonstop silt accumulation. Unfortunately a considerable amount of water goes straight into the Arabian sea as we have politicised the promising sites for construction of additional dams. To avert catastrophic consequences of the crisis, we need to urgently undertake measures to conserve the available water and check its wastage. For this purpose, work should be initiated on priority basis rather on war-footing as has been rightly stressed by the Chief Executive for lining of canals and watercourse. So far, we have only concentrated only on desilting while this aspect remained neglected. Farmers should also be adequately educated about exact requirements of crop watering as, according to the existing practice, farmers resort to 15 to 20 inch watering for wheat as against actual requirement of only two inch leading not only to wastage of considerable water but also water logging. The government should seriously consider introducting irrigation water metering especially for big landlords to ensure judicious use of scarcely available water. The emerging situation also poses a challenge to our agricultural scientists to evolve varieties of different crops that mature in shortest possible period and need less water.