GROWING SHORTAGE OF WATER

The country needs efficient water management

MAHVESH FAROOQI
Sep 17 - 23, 2007

Pakistanís agriculture sector faces various impediments. One of the key issues is limited availability of in-time water for irrigation. Often the country faces either of the two extreme conditions, floods or drought like situation. This has historically kept agriculture production and productivity low.

The country faces flood like situation when there is too much rain fall and water spills over river banks, canals and even the protective walls. This happens because the country does not have adequate water storage facility. Vice versa, if there is low or no rain fall the country faces drought like situation after the limited available resources dry up.

Ironically Pakistan has one of the biggest and most organized man-made irrigation systems. However, due to persistent neglect, hardly any routine maintenance and above all big landlords diverting water to their lands hardly leave any water for the peasants having lands at the tail end of the system.

Lately, there has been a load talk about construction of water reservoirs in the country. Some of the projects have been initiated and work is going on at fast pace. The objectives of constructing these projects are 1) creation of additional water storage facilities and 2) construction of new hydro power generation plants.

Interestingly, the country cannot increase area under cultivation because of limited water availability. However, a lot of water goes to the sea because of inadequate storage facilities. The uncontrolled flow of water and seepage from the canals lead to water logging and salinity issues. Constant erosion of fertile areas is rendering thousands of acres of land uncultivable every year.

In an attempt to control water logging in the irrigated areas two projects were initiated on both the sides of River Indus. Billions of rupees have been spent on these projects but all in vain. The problem has proliferated because of myopic plans of WAPDA. Saline water is extracted from affected areas and being dumped/spread over virgin lands.

On top of this RBDO and LBDO projects are fast polluting rivers, canals and adjoining areas. One of the worst examples of bad planning is discharge of saline water into Manchar Lake for decades. This lake was among some of the largest sweet-water lakes of the world but dumping of saline water has converted it among those lakes which have the most poisonous water.

Not only that it has affected the ecology of the area but has virtually killed the sweet-water fish, one of the main sources of income for the residents of the area.

According to the new plan arrangements are being made to discharge water of this lake as well as the saline water coming from other areas into River Indus. It is feared that once such a big quantum of saline water is discharged into the River Indus the worst sufferer would be the people living down the Kotri Barrage.

Whatever damage has been done cannot be reversed and WAPDA has proved to be a bad manager of countryís irrigation system. In fact, its bad planning and worse management has given Pakistan some of the worst ëgiftsí. These include seepage and overflowing water from canals, water logging and salinity. In an attempt to cover up these mistakes, it is now committing blunders, on which billion of rupees are being wasted.

Water logging is the outcome of 1) seepage of water from canals and 2) virtually no maintenance of watercourses. Seepage of water is because most of the canals are without any lining. On top of this the bed of the canals has been rising due to lack of cleaning. In some of the areas canal bed is much higher than the lands. Spillover of water from these canals adds to the problem.

WAY FORWARD

Having reached the conclusion that increasing area under cultivation is not possible due to limited availability the best option is to use the available water prudently. The future strategy must comprise of 1) construction of additional storage facilities, 2) regulated discharge from the reservoirs, 3) cleaning and lining of canals and watercourses and 4) construction of separate canals for carrying saline water directly to the sea.

Ideally Pakistan should have opted for construction of big dams because these help in achieving two objectives 1) creation of new water storage facilities and 2) hydro power generation. However, the growing consensus is that country should construct numerous smaller dams. Construction of smaller dams causes less displacement of people and damage to the environment of the adjoining areas. Smaller hydro power station could also help in containing transmission and distribution losses of electricity.

One of the factors contributing to lower production and productivity of the agriculture sector is imprudent use of water, facing declining availability due to rising population. In a number of countries drip-water irrigation system is in use. This helps in containing loss of water but more importantly controlling water logging.

Pakistan also suffers from inadequate supply of clean potable water. In most the urban areas, particularly in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad people are forced to buy drinking water. Industries are also forced to either use water being drawn by the tube wells or tanker mafia. The situation is even worse in rural areas. The sights of human beings and animals drinking water from the same reservoir are common.

It is being said that the third world war would be fought on water. Cultivating food and cash crop with limited supply of water could make the country heavily dependent on imported wheat etc. and adversely affect textile and sugar industry.

Pakistan also needs to resolve its water issues with India. Both the countries are signatories to Indus Basin Water Treaty. India must respect the treaty and abstain from curtailing flow of water to Pakistan.

Pakistan should also establish water desalination plants in the coastal areas. Though, it may be a very expensive proposition the sooner it becomes a reality the better it will.