WHILE the annual canal cleaning season is approaching in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the provincial irrigation department does not seem to be making preparations for it.
The timely start and completion of canal cleaning, which primarily requires removal of silt from canals, is essential for thousands of farmers in the agriculture rich Swabi, Mardan, Charsadda, Peshawar, Swat, and Dera Ismail Khan districts for improved water supplies.
It takes a lot of time to make preparations to launch the exercise as the official process to award contract for the cleaning work is time-consuming, says President of Kissan Board, KP, Khalid Khan.
The cleaning exercise is supposed to commence in early January every year and completed in one month. However, it seldom starts on time. As a result, it continues till late into February, and by that time rains begin that cause delay in completing the exercise.
“A delayed start costs us dearly,” says the senior Vice President of Anjuman-e-Kashtkaran, KP, Niamat Shah Roghani.
Farmers have not forgotten the year 2011 when canals in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa became fully operational only in the second week of March, causing problems in several areas.
“Nobody feels it important to consult us before the seasonal cleaning campaign; elected representatives visit us only when they need votes,” complains Roghani.
Khan feels the irrigation department should start the cleaning campaign in December instead of January. The department begins the cleaning operation in January under the pretext that there is more moisture in the air at that time. While the closure of canals does not bother farmers, they do suffer when the reopening gets delayed until end of February or even March.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has a network of 10 canals, involving a total length of 2,970 kilometers. Spread across districts of Peshawar, Charsadda, Swabi, Mardan, Swat, Buner, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan, canals form an important economic lifeline for thousands of farmers in the province as, according to official figures, some 12 million acres are irrigated through canal water.
The effectiveness of the cleaning campaign has also been a question mark. Farmers say the government spent hundreds of millions of rupees every year in removing silt, but the money goes down the drain due to mismanagement.
The previous government had attempted to ensure the funds were was utilised effectively. National Accountability Bureau (NAB) was also engaged for a couple of years to monitor the de-silting.. NAB’s staff members conducted physical monitoring in 2010 and 2011.
However, cleaning canals and removing silt is an expensive exercise and the provincial government finds it difficult to finance it from its kitty. The previous government had specified Rs500 million in the last financial year.
According to official circles, the allocation was insignificant in view of the effort it takes to clean the entire canal system.
Farmers complain de-silting campaigns in the past were far from satisfactory as some the canals got clogged a few weeks after the exercise. Officials concur with this, but argue that the money allocated to canal cleaning is not meant for removing silt only. Part of it is also used to repair and improve canal network, wherever needed. Last year, half of the allocated amount was used for repairs, says an official.
“De-silting of canals is too huge a task to carry out within the given resources,” says an irrigation department official, “Our canals, particularly in urban areas, have been turned into solid waste deposits and sewage drains.” Farmers also agree the system needs major repair to maintain speedy water flows and reduce losses.
Due to unabated illegal practice of diverting sewage water to irrigation canals, the canal closure for cleaning purposes has practically become impossible in urban centres like Peshawar and Mardan.
The irrigation department’s letters to civic bodies, including town and tehsil municipal administrations for taking action against people responsible for turning canals into sewage drains have gone unnoticed.
Among the offenders are government departments, Peshawar Development Authority, local government and rural development department, public health department, and the Peshawar Police Lines.
They have put their newly constructed buildings’ sewage lines into nearby canals.
Hazarkhawani canal that passes through Peshawar’s urban localities is replete with sewage materials. The same is the case with Kabul River canal and Joe Sheikh canal passing through Peshawar districts. The issue poses dangers to public health and environment as well.
Roghani says sewage in irrigation canals had become an alarming issue in his native Mardan district. He says water in the Upper Swat canal has become polluted because people living upstream have diverted their gutter pipes into it.
The irrigation water flowing out of the canals in Peshawar is used by farmers growing vegetables in the city’s suburbs.Fortunately, the municipal authorities have taken some measures to control the menace. Plans/drawings for constructing new buildings in Peshawar are not approved unless they include underground sewage tanks.
While the new measures, if implemented efectively, will help control the problem, the old sewage lines contaminating the irrigation canals still exist till the time the government takes a firm action against the violators.