THE Punjab irrigation department is modernising its measurement and communication systems by installing sensors to monitor real-time water flow in the channels under its command.
Started with technical and financial assistance of the World Bank in the previous financial year, the project envisages installing sensors to monitor real-time flow on its barrages, canals and distributaries, with the prime target of curbing canal water theft.
The Eastern Sadiqia canal system in Bahawalnagar district has been selected as a pilot project for the purpose. Dr Muhammad Riaz, director of the project management and implementation unit, said the canal system has been selected for the area is notorious for water theft.
About implementing the project piecemeal, he argues that the phased implementation will help test acceptance of the system by farmers, the real beneficiaries of the project.
Farmers say real issues are shortage and unfair distribution of water
At least 139 points of the Sadiqia canal — which has two branch canals, 37 distributaries, 53 minors and 14 sub-minors — have been selected for installing the computerised surveillance system.
Of them, sensors on 70 points have been installed and data from 40 of them is being generated while calibration of others has yet to be completed, Dr Riaz said.
The project missed its deadline of September 2017. Irrigation officials say time for installing electronic equipment was not enough.
“Although civil work at 80 per cent selected points has been finished, the Korean contractor hired for providing and installing the new measuring instrument is facing difficulty because we have a canal closure period of just 20 days for accomplishing the task of fixing the monitors,” he said. “The job will be completed during the ongoing closure of canals maximum by March 31, 2018.”
Justifying the introduction of computerised surveillance, the official argued that the earlier monitoring technique has been yielding data once a day, whereas the new system will allow 24-hour monitoring from barrages to tail ends, with as many readings as the high command is desirous of.
Farmers, however, believe that the irrigation department intervention is not going to ensure the availability of water, saying the department is striking the wrong note.
Sarfraz Ahmed Khan, senior vice-president of the Kisan Board Pakistan, said real issues facing farmers are water shortage and unfair distribution of available water resources.
He lamented that the country has capacity to store water for only 30 days, as no new project has been undertaken in this sector since the 1970s, whereas some less-resourceful countries have a 180-day storage capacity.
As far as the distribution of the available irrigation water is concerned, he said that influential landlords wielding political clout, particularly those with landholdings upstream of a distributary, claim the lion’s share of the resources at the cost of those living at tail-end areas.
A senior official of the provincial irrigation department said that so far it has been mostly relying on manual or human observation of water flows, while the century-old irrigation system was also marred by corruption among staff members and influence of landlords.
“Corrupt officials used to take bribes and release water illegally into channels, mostly at night time when the supervisory staff was not around,” the official said, requesting not to be named.
“But with the introduction of real-time monitors, the water flow data is automatically communicated to the main server at Lahore round the clock, eliminating any chance of illegal flows,” he said, adding that it will also lead to better and real-time decision-making for improved and efficient management of water resources, and detect intentional or unintentional variations in water supplies.
Mr Khan, who is also a member of the Punjab Agricultural Commission, said the issue has never been raised in the discussions of the commission, “which reflects low priority the policymakers attach to the agriculture sector”.
The irrigation official said the department does get cases registered against water theft, but he agrees that any accused has seldom been penalised.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 8th,2018