Water-stressed crop economy

Updated 10 Feb 2014

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- File Photo
- File Photo

In its recent report, the Asian Development Bank has become the latest institution to point out Pakistan’s water realities in stark terms: “Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, not far from being classified as water scarce, with less than 1,000 cubic metres per person per year.

“ Water demand exceeds supply, resulting in maximum withdrawal of water from reservoirs. At present, the national storage capacity is limited to a 30-day supply, well below the recommended 1,000 days for countries with a similar climate.”

To make the matter worse, climate change is affecting snowmelt and reducing flows into the Indus River, the main supply source. Increases in storage capacity to manage periods of low snowmelt and low rainfall are required, as well as the rehabilitation of the distribution system to reduce losses. Achieving the major challenge of boosting agricultural productivity and strengthening food security requires improving the management, storage and pricing of water for irrigation.

However, on the positive side, the ADB thinks, “anecdotal evidence suggests that agricultural productivity could be doubled with appropriate reform. Improved water management is critical to deliver sufficient water to the 80 per cent farmland in the country that is irrigated through canal system.”

With the passage of time, the water issues are not only growing in intensity but dimensions as well.

Apart from infrastructural issues, which are deteriorating and posing serious consequences, climate is also worsening. Pakistan’s storages had lost 28 per cent of capacity before the Mangla Dam was raised to replenish it by around 15 per cent.

But a huge question mark lurks on the capacity of River Jehlum to support country’s largest dam. Even before raising, the dam was filled only seven out of ten years. With additional capacity of three million acre feet, the dam would, in all probability, be filled only in case of exceptional rains in catchments. Snow fall, even when extraordinary, may not fill the dam. With India building a number of dams on the main river and its tributaries, doubts deepen on its filling. Apart from Mangla raising, there has simply been no water planning for the last four decades.

With 70pc fresh water supplies concentrated in three monsoon months only, one cannot over emphasize the importance of storages for the remaining nine month supplies. With over 80pc crops directly dependent on canal water, ensuring regular supplies through storages has become a critical matter for Pakistan.

The failure to build storages becomes more grave if seen in context of the new seeds that are being promoted and ripened with massive watering. The new hybrids of maize and Bt cotton are two pointers in the same direction.

With induction of new seeds in the last one decade, the sowing period has been forwarded to February and March instead of traditional May. Both these months are historically known for low water supplies. The three monsoon months in which water supply is concentrated largely, represent the leanest period as they fall at the fag end of the Rabi season when irrigation water supplies are at their lowest ebb.

There are already two drains on water resources in shape of cane and rice. Rice crop alone needs around 17 million acre feet (maf) of water – almost the entire supplies of one of its three rivers – Kabul, Jehlum and Chenab. The quantity is more than three proposed Kalabagh dams (5maf) or more than two Diamir-Bhasha dams (8maf).

Pakistan’s water woes having multiple dimensions, are growing with the passage of time because of mismanagement, natural and man-made factors. The supplies are squeezing because of climate impact. It is not feasible to promote seeds that need more water to mature.