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WATER shortage in the Kharif season has become a permanent feature for growers in the canals’ tail-end areas. Their land irrigated by Nara and Rohri canals of the Sukkur barrage on Indus left bank.

The Sukkur barrage, considered a lifeline of Sindh’s agricultural, irrigates nearly eight million acres through its seven major canals. Though canals are getting desired flows at present, farmers complain they are still short of water.

On the other hand, Sukkur barrage officials are said to have noted unusual fluctuation in discharges between Chashma and Taunsa barrages in the second week of July. They say they have taken the matter up with the Sindh irrigation department and the Indus River System Authority (Irsa), Pakistan’s top water regulatory body.

Shortages in the command area of Sindh’s barrages, mainly in the tail-end reaches, are by and large due to internal mismanagement, reluctance of irrigation field staff to ensure tail-end canal gauges, a lack of canals’ management, water theft with the backing of politicians.

The influential ones, the upper riparian in any canal system, draw water at the cost of the tail-growers. Tail-end areas are fed by Rohri and Nara canals besides Kotri barrage’s three perennial canals. However, until the second week of July growers of these areas were experiencing shortages despite near adequate flows.

Will the chief minister, himself an engineer, do something about the direct canal outlets sanctioned as political favour?

“It’s because of our failures at different levels that we are not able to keep supplies going for tail-end areas,” an official of the irrigation department said. “Currently, we are demanding more than our share of water for the Sukkur barrage to maintain its pond level. This will help us ensure supplies to barrage’s right bank canals.”

Since June 17, authorities have been releasing water downstream the Kotri barrage. It indicates that Sindh’s 14 off-taking canals are drawing adequate water flows. Growers of lower Sindh cultivate cotton by early-March or even by end-February.

The reason behind the early sowing is that landowners at the head of canals don’t need water at that time so flows are released downstream in the canals such as Nasir and Rohri canals.

“This shortage is chronic and artificial,” says Fayaz Rashdi, who has been leading farmers’ protest against water shortage in district Badin’s Khairpur Gamboh area, the last subdivision of the Rohri canal.

“It’s the result of withdrawals of excessive flows by those who own land in upper reaches of the Rohri canal. I’ve cultivated only 75 acres of land out of the 250,” he says.

Growers even protested on Eidul Fitr. Farmers say the Rs15,000 they spent on an acre for cultivating cotton would go down the drain if monsoon rains didn’t come to their rescue or water availability was not ensured as soon as possible.

The situation is similar with the Nara canal. At least half of the tail-end areas are not getting water supplies, says Khalid Sadaf, who owns land in command of the Jamrao canal, a branch of the Nara canal.

Kot Ghulam Mohammad and Digri are tail-end subdivisions of the Nara canal system. “I could cultivate cotton crop on 15 acres and chilli on five acres,” he says. “Rotation programme [alternate water supplies for different canals] is usually announced when there is shortage in the system. But in our case we are slapped with permanent rotation and shortage.”

Water flow statistics for Kotri barrage’s canals Phuleli, Pinyari, Akram Wah and Kalri Baghar feeders showed that its four canals are withdrawing close to 42,500 cubic feet per second (cusecs) of flows until July 12 — 41,000 cusecs is sufficient enough to meet requirements of these channels. “The tail-end areas must get water when canals are drawing full discharges. But it’s not the case thanks to failures and mismanagement,” a former official of the Kotri barrage says.

Syed Mahmood Nawaz Shah, vice-president of the Sindh Abadgar Board, points out that not only the tail-end areas but entire distributaries remain short of water. “Only rains in June and July provided some relief to growers. Otherwise, the shortage could have been more severe.”

Moreover, another major reason behind the shortage is direct outlets, which are sanctioned by the competent authority — the chief minister — as political favour. Hundreds of such outlets are allowed in main canals that were strictly prohibited, if the standard operating procedures laid down by the British are anything to go by.

Legally, a farmer could bring 27 per cent of land under cultivation for summer and 54pc for winter crops. But successive chief ministers have allowed direct outlets.

To compound the issue, the dimensions of these outlets have been tampered with by beneficiaries to get uninterrupted water supplies. Tail-end growers say it is the direct outlets that make them suffer as they remain open round the year.

These outlets, which dot the entire landscape of Rohri and Nara canals, help influential landowners to grow rice, a high delta crop, in the left bank of the Sukkur barrage, which is prohibited otherwise under the law. Flows for an acre of rice cultivation are sufficient for seven acres of cotton cultivation, farmers say.

A person applying for direct outlet argues that he does not get water from the present irrigation system and is unable to shift his land to any other command area. This contention needs to be proved, but is overlooked on political consideration.

It’s time that the Sindh government, headed by Syed Murad Ali Shah who himself is an engineer and holds the irrigation portfolio as well, revisited the direct outlet regime in the province to ensure everybody gets the amount of water they need.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 17th, 2017