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Threat to Punjab crops from floods

Updated August 26, 2013

OVERFLOWING river torrents and heavy rains have left water standing over a million acres, spread across 25 districts in Punjab, and are giving farmers sleepless nights.

Worse yet, dark clouds are still hovering and the metrological officials have warned of even more rains in the coming days and weeks.

Though it is still very early to quantify the damages, they would certainly be substantial if farmers and provincial officials are to be believed. The worst hit area so far — rice (basmati) belt that falls along five torrents feeding Ravi and Chenab rivers — is closer to border areas from where the rain waters enters Pakistan’s territory. Farmers fear they may suffer around 25 per cent yield losses whereas officials put it at 10 per cent.

The same applies to cotton as excessive rains and overflowing rivers damage the standing crop. The farmers and crop would suffer on two accounts: yield and lint quality. Once again, officials are reluctant to count the loss because, “Water is still standing in the fields and more rains are yet to come,” they say.

However, the immediate loss farmers have already felt is the damage to vegetables, grown in the areas hit by floods and rains. Vegetables have also suffered while being transported to the markets. These factors pushed the prices up in major cities of the province and have been keeping supplies significantly low. Farmers from all bordering districts in affected central Punjab located closer to big cities have substantial acreage for vegetable.

The losses to sugarcane, however, are not much as stated by both the farmers and officials. However, they may get hurt if the wet spell persists for long.

While both River Chenab and River Sutlej have over-flown to some extent, Sutlej has remained within, what is commonly known as, kacha area. In the case of Chenab, however, more damage has been done by its five tributaries, known as ‘naulah’ to locals. Some of these torrents are so big (like Dek) that they are known as river (Devak) across the border and generate up to 35,000 cusecs of water. These five torrents enter Pakistan at different points, cover various distances and fall into Chenab or Ravi, but not before causing damage to standing crops and properties along their routes.

The crucial issue is that while the tributaries have been flowing for millennia, have fixed routes both for normal flows and even floods, their flows are measured for decades and their pattern is known, little planning has been done to channelise them safely into their rivers. Rather, over the decades, people have started sowing crops on their beds, have built houses and even factories — choking their routes and forcing them to flow far and beyond their natural paths, causing damage along the way. Each year, they go on a rampage of varying degrees for six to eight weeks, depending on the intensity and time spread of the monsoon, only be forgotten for the rest of the year.

According to the officials, these torrents generate different kinds of common and individual planning and execution problems. The most common of them are social attitudes and realities. Threatened by poverty, people grab every inch of land for agriculture, residential and even commercial uses.

“All these routes have been blocked by these factors,” says Director Flood Forecasting Division, Raiz Khan, “Unless, they are cleared, no planning would work and clearing them comes at a huge social and political cost. On the other hand, channels of these tributaries are becoming narrower by the year as encroachments increases. Rains in the basin are a routine ecological phenomenon and so is its flow to rivers. The problem is that we keep blocking their way. Some of the torrents that have over 30,000 cusecs capacity at their origin have been reduced to 3,000 cusecs within a few hundred miles of reaching rivers. That problem has to be taken care of,” he insists.

Dredging and deepening of such torrents is not possible, says M. H. Siddiqui, consultant at the Punjab Irrigation Department. Their widening is certainly an option, but problems arise when some of them flow right through cities (like Sialkot) leaving little space for such measure.

Within a narrow radius of 50 to 60 miles, they hit irrigation infrastructure that makes it hard to create spaces for their flow. However, it does not mean that engineering solutions are not possible, but only that they need integrated planning, and building a huge and parallel infrastructure to route them safely, he points out.