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Past perfect: Irrigation in Pakistan

Published Mar 22, 2015 06:42am

In Pakistan, the spate irrigation system is the second largest system after the Indus Basin irrigated agricultural system that provides food and livelihood to millions of people. Found in all four provinces, spate is known as rod kohi, (rod meaning torrent bed and koh meaning mountain) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab, Sailaba in Balochistan and Nai in Sindh.

Rod Kohi is a system of irrigation in which water from flash floods from the mountains is used for irrigating the foothill plains. Because of its reliance on floods as the source of water, it is inherently risky and uncertain. It is also an ancient form of water management that is unique to semi-arid environments; prevalent in Sudan, Yemen and Eritrea. In Pakistan, it dates back to the Mehergarh civilisation, which archaeologists now claim could be as old as 9,000 years, and whose remains have been found in Balochistan.

Despite being thousands of years old, it is a form of irrigation that gets little attention. Hence, a few years ago the Pakistan Spate Irrigation Network decided to produce a book that would highlight the lesser known side of the Indus River in Pakistan — the dry plains along the Western mountain ranges where rod kohi is extensively practiced.

The meticulously researched book, Dry Side of Indus: Exploring Spate Irrigation in Pakistan, was recently published by Vanguard Books and launched in a ceremony held in Islamabad. The book is authored by renowned experts in the water sector, including Frank Van Steenbergen (international spate expert), Karim Nawaz (water expert from Balochistan), Arjumand Nizami (of the NGO Intercooperation) and Shahid Ahmad (from the National Agriculture Research Centre).

An ancient form of water harvesting which is low cost, environmentally sustainable and people-friendly has enormous potential

In order to complete research for the book, the team of researchers had to travel to the rural areas of Dera Ismail Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan and interior Sindh to discover a whole new type of agriculture. On one trip to Thana Bula Khan in Sindh, they arrived soon after heavy rains had hit the province, breaking several years of severe drought. The spate areas near the Kirthar Mountain Range were covered with vegetation — shrubs, grass, small trees and, of course, the newly sown crop fields. The arid hills and plains, usually dusty and brown, were now miraculously coloured in with green and yellow hues. Mostly subsistence crops like sorghum, millet, wheat and vegetables like moong beans, cucumbers and pumpkins are grown in these spate areas.

Crops grown in spate areas are mostly organic; they are grown from one or more irrigations using residual moisture stored in the deep alluvial soils formed from the sediments deposited from previous irrigations. Hence spate systems “grow” in their own soils, and rely on nutrients transported with sediments to maintain fertility. The crops grown don’t require inputs like fertilisers and pesticides and hence are of a higher nutritional value and less susceptible to disease.

The team also travelled by road from Dera Ismail Khan to Dera Ghazi Khan, which lie in the foothills of the Sulaiman Range and visited fascinating places like Chaudhavan village, a picturesque old settlement surrounded by groves of date palm trees. The water used to circulate throughout the village through lined water channels, but unfortunately with the neglect of the Chaudhavan Zam (spate irrigation catchment area), the village had started facing severe water shortages. Sadly, the beautiful old palm trees were dying and many farmers had started cutting them down to grow other crops.

Crops grown in spate areas are mostly organic; they are grown from one or more irrigations using residual moisture stored in the deep alluvial soils formed from the sediments deposited from previous irrigations. Hence spate systems “grow” in their own soils, and rely on nutrients transported with sediments to maintain fertility.

The team also visited the ancient settlement of Sakhi Sarwar, which sprang up centuries ago around the shrine of a mystic saint who is still revered by both Muslims and Hindus. Every year his birth anniversary is celebrated with great fervour and rice is cooked in large urns — there is a legend that these urns will never go empty as long as the shrine remains intact. Unfortunately there was a huge bomb blast, which severely damaged the shrine a few years ago. Since the research for the book was completed around eight years ago, there is no chapter analysing the link between spate areas and militancy, which has spread considerably in these areas of Southern Punjab and KP in the past few years.

What the team found in their travels was that the spate irrigation system in Pakistan has enormous potential. A lot can be done to improve the livelihoods of the poverty stricken communities living in the rod kohi areas. At the policy level, the rod kohi system should be encouraged since it is low cost, environmentally sustainable and people friendly. It gives sustenance to the poorest and allows free grazing for livestock. Many kinds of medicinal plants, wild vegetables and mushrooms are found in spate areas, which have potential cash value if marketed properly. Spate areas also sustain various kinds of endangered wildlife. These include cranes, flamingoes and houbara bustards. Since the flooded fields are free of pesticides and other chemicals, they become natural wetlands which attract migratory birds from as far afield as Siberia.

There are many pictures included in the book, which is full of facts about spate irrigation and portrays a detailed picture of how villagers see hill torrent floods as something useful. They manage the water from the hill torrents through indigenous water user organisations and ancient methods. The floodwater upon reaching the plain areas is managed in a few hours to a few days only.

The local people have evolved water user associations who practice and implement this system in a more professional way than government engineers. This book on spate irrigation is all the more relevant now given the threat

of climate change. With rainfall becoming more erratic, we need to invest in this tried and tested indigenous method of irrigation.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 22nd , 2015

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