Balochistan’s irrigation system is in bad shape. Centuries-old traditional irrigation systems, including Karez, have become dysfunctional owing to depleting groundwater resources.

The province’s mega irrigation infrastructure — especially the dams damaged by the floods of 2010 — is still in shambles. Thus, there is a serious threat to the lives and livelihood of local communities in case of heavy rain or floods in the region.

The much publicised ‘100-dams’ project for the province by the federal government has hit snags.

In a bid to resolve the irrigation problem, the World Bank approved its six-year ‘Balochistan Integrated Water Resource Management and Develop­ment Project’ in June, at an estimated cost of $253.72m. This includes the International Develop­ment Agency’s $205.56m and the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s $38.06m. The Balochistan government will contribute $10.11m.

The project is located in the Nari and Porali River Basins. The physical works proposed under the project are as follows:

The perennial irrigation schemes mainly include construction of off-take structures from the main river, channel lining and outlets, construction of water distribution structures and cross drainage.

The Spate irrigation component consists of: construction of weir-controlled floodwater diversion systems, including the headwork; main canal, distributaries and watercourses for the distribution of water to the command area; and development of the command area and Spate farming.

The project seems to be a case of misplaced priorities, developed without proper participation from relevant local communities

The flood protection work comprises of the construction of: earthen bunds with rip rap, earthen spurs with stone pitching, and gabion structures.

Collectively, across the two river basins, the flood protection work will protect 14,400ha, and 3,220 homes, from erosion, and benefit 4,500 farming families by minimising damage to the agricultural land.

The water supply scheme envisages the development of 16 village water supply schemes.

Although the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project has been conducted and approved, there are a number of serious gaps in the report, raising doubts about the level of public consultation and participation.

Independent experts, civil society and community representatives are raising serious concerns about the nature of the project and its activities.

According to the report, during consultations residents of over 12 villages — the supposed beneficiaries of the project — showed a unanimous willingness to voluntarily provide their land for the construction of the projects’ various components; raising questions about the way these meetings were conducted.

This willingness of the residents is synonymous to them giving a license to the authorities to acquire land from local farmers without any compensation, allowing for deforestation and demolition of any construction in its way, while displacing millions of locals in the process.

The rehabilitation of the irrigation infrastructure of Balochistan — destroyed during the floods of 2010 — has been a key demand of the local farmers. Their elected representatives have long been raising this issue. A number of destroyed dam infrastructures exist on both the Nari and Porali Rivers of Balochistan. Even the EIA report identifies this as a key issue. Yet, on the contrary, the focus of the project remains on perennial irrigation schemes.

Moreover, integrated sub-projects under the project largely include weir-controlled spate irrigation.

According to irrigation experts, key emphasis in the project has been on spate irrigation infrastructure which diverts water from ephemeral rivers beds during floods.

Balochistan has been experiencing reduced rainfall with climate change further reducing its frequency and intensity. About 61pc of river flow occurs during the months of July and August. Therefore, developing spate irrigation instead of rehabilitating existing infrastructure and small dams seems to be a misplaced investment.

The project document also accepts that ‘uncertainty in the number and sequence of floods and the quantity of sediments are the primary factors affecting spate irrigation.’ It also says: “The project will develop 22,056 ha of command area in the Nari River Basin under spate irrigation through community participatory procurement with water users contributing 15-35pc to construction costs in-kind”; a step which is likely to affect the local communities as well as their investment would also be in vain.

The project document further says, “beneficiary farmers will contribute in-kind with their labour, for cost sharing of the development work”, raising fears that there would be a ‘budgeted’ threat of forced farmers’ labour.

The EIA report shows that only a single ‘public consultation’ was held at Winder, a small town in Lasbela District. This is particularly interesting as Winder is not even included in the project area, yet the majority of the participants were from Winder and surrounding villages. There was barely any participation of the Porali command area and the Khuzdar district, from where the Porali River originates and where majority of the project infrastructure development schemes are planned to be implemented.

Similarly, there was no participation in the public hearing of the entire command area of the Nari River — the largest river basin in Balochistan — despite the fact that only 60pc of the project investment will be utilised there.

The project seems to be a case of misplaced priorities without the proper participation of the local communities in the project design, including while identifying its key activities.

Keeping in view the continuing irrigation dilemmas of Balochistan, there is a strong need to re-plan this World Bank loan-based project by holding serious consultations with the local communities as well as experts and civil society organisations on the nature and activities of this process before its implementation.

It should be ensured that the process is carried out in a way which does not harm the local communities that, under the current project plan, may face displacement and forced labour.

The writer is a researcher and civil society professional.

Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, November 28th, 2016

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