While water has been on a scarcity streak for the past few years, the situation became critical during the last year; prevailing conditions inform of a semi-drought like state in the coming season in view of the predicted 60 percent shortage of irrigation water for the Rabi crop.
Rains visited Pakistan only half heartedly this summer; the regular monsoon season surrendered itself to dryness that was unusual to unprecedented. Glaciers did not melt sufficiently to increase water in the rivers and in reservoirs that are already suffering from sedimentation and their capacity is shrinking by the year.
The storage capacity of Mangla and Tarbela dams and Chashma has been substantially reduced over the years. Whatever the quantity of rains in the future, water storages of Pakistan would remain short of meeting the country’s irrigation needs. This situation is not going to be reversed.
Water shortage is not of recent origin. Experts have been warning against impending scarcity and emphasizing that Pakistan, an affluent country in terms of water at the time of independence, was turning in to a water poor nation because of dwindling resources, delay in building additional storage facilities and excessive, unplanned and extravagant use of water. No one paid heed to their expertise or foresight.
One way or the other, governments in command since the exit of Z.A. Bhutto in July 1977 were more preoccupied with their survival than national priorities, deliberately neglecting them for personal ends, as in the case of General Zia, or, like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, unable to act with authority because of multiple extraneous pressures.
The situation has been compounded by persistent drought in the past four years that inflicted untold miseries on Thar, Cholistan and some areas of Balochistan. Human lives and animal wealth were devastated on a large scale. The government’s response consisted of support for the affected people but no plans were drawn for preparing the country against such a calamity in case of its recurrence.
With a pathetic lack of focus on the real issue, conditions were bound to deteriorate. That has happened and more frighteningly, worse seems to be around the corner.
Unfortunately, a routine approach still marks the government’s handling of the situation. The issue is not distribution of water but saving Pakistan from imminent disaster and ensuring that agriculture’s output is at least not impaired.
This is a scenario of near doom for Pakistan’s agriculture but even worse, there seems no silver lining on the horizon, no clouds that could pour down relief. Whatever one’s opinion of the government’s handling of the water crises, there can be no disagreement that no administration can create additional water, certainly not overnight. What happens in the long run is a different subject, not that ground conditions hold much hope on that count.
The only thing within the jurisdiction of the government is management of available resources. That task has been assigned to IRSA. Little positive is to be said on this count because officials presiding over IRSA always appear to be looking at the fall-out of their decisions from a certain non-economic, non-agriculture point of view or pandering to the interests of influential elements.
The officials may not be blamed all the way because these elements are mostly in command of national affairs and often comprise, if not traditional land barons, new members of the feudal elite who operate with the zeal of fresh converts.
Beneficiaries of a generous policy of sale of agriculture land at throwaway prices, they usually have official backing for exploitation of resources; they are also often more demanding than traditional land owning families.
These pressures notwithstanding IRSA, the top water management body of the country has been working with blurred sights; it has not been able to settle the basic issue of how the water should be distributed: to provinces or to lands and crops. This is all the more important if optimum results are to be obtained from the use of available water.
Whether IRSA has been vested with authority to rise above the routine is a question but judging from its established directions and methodology for managing water, it does not appear to have worked on any line other than trying to satisfy provinces and distribute water to satisfy demands that are not necessarily linked with irrigation requirements of crops.
The cultivation cycle in the two main regions of Pakistan, lower Sindh on one side and upper Sindh and Punjab on the other, are separated by a period of nearly eight weeks.
Crops are cultivated and harvested in lower Sindh earlier than the other agriculture region. That is an important factor for determining water needs of crops in the two regions.
There in fact seems a basic fault in the mandate of IRSA. Water must be properly and equitably distributed but the purpose should be making it more productive for crops.
Its distribution cannot be an end in itself. The sole function of IRSA, though presumably not its official mandate, seems to be distributing water to keep segments appeased or pleased.
While references are constantly made to rabi and kharif crops and water is ostensibly allocated for them, the system is only marginally beneficial to crops in the two cultivation cycle zones.
There is little evidence that the functioning of IRSA is specifically designed for promoting productivity of the agriculture sector through water. But unless that is done, the problem would not only persist, it is certain to aggravate as surely as night follows the day.
In any case, IRSA alone cannot ensure productivity from water without organized and planned input from agriculture and irrigation departments of provinces. Their resources and facilities need to be harnessed collectively for procuring maximum results from scuttled supplies.
A collective effort has become a prerequisite if Pakistan’s agriculture is to continue producing even the present quantum of yields; thinking of improvements and gains would be self-deception at this point in time, not that the authorities are ever to presenting pictures that do not reflect ground realities.
Agriculture departments of provinces, mainly Sindh and Punjab have to precisely identify requirements of crops in each area, indeed in each field and provide them the required irrigation input exactly when it is needed.
There is no room for delay or waste, let alone for aimless discussions in offices cut off from the actual scene and viewing from developments from angles other than the country’s agriculture.
IRSA is a federal body while agriculture is a provincial subject but that should not force isolation on various components of the sector. There must be close coordination between all organizations and agencies linked with agriculture.
At this point in time, only discordance can be the title of the official scheme for the distribution of water. A comprehensive plan needs must be formulated to obtain the best from available water.
More importantly, the plan should not be restricted to one rabi and one kharif crop but for the coming years when water could become an even scarcer commodity and only a thin line may be standing between Pakistan, an agriculture based economy and famine.
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Courtesy : The DAWN