WITH a Pakistan’s population growing at a rate of around 2.6 per cent and projected to reach 300 million by 2050, Punjab — the most populous federating unit of the country — may soon face serious water availability and quality challenges.
To meet the challenges the steps taken so far have focused only on the supply side, ignoring population control measures and changing attitudes of the people towards efficient use and conservation of water.
The replacement cost of the province’s irrigation system is more than $25 billion. Ironically, utilisation-wise it is also one of the most inefficient systems as 50pc of the water that flows down its canals is lost before it reaches agricultural fields in their respective command areas.
In other words, out of the 104 million acre feet (MAF) of water Punjab receives as its share, only around 55MAF reach farmers, with those at the head of a distributary getting a greater share than the tail-enders.
‘Right now, when the farmer is unable to pay the rational cost of canal water and the government itself is deficient in financial resources, expecting us to introduce and promote efficient watering systems is like living in a fool’s paradise,’ says Mr Leghari
Dr Erum Khalid Sattar, who teaches Water Rights and Resources at Elisabeth Haub School of Law, is critical of the inefficient use of water.
Stressing on more crops for each drop of water, she tells participants of a seminar here that with just 10MAF water from the Colorado river, which encompasses seven US and two Mexican states, an economy worth $1.5 trillion has been built while Punjab, with 104MAF is generating only a fraction of that amount.
Admitting water sector inefficiencies, provincial authorities say they are engaged in preparing a ‘Master Water Plan’, backed by legal cover, which encompasses regulation of abstraction of water and disposal of waste water in both urban and rural areas.
Neither of the two tasks will be allowed, either by an individual or anentity, without them getting registered with the authority concerned and obtaining a duration-specific licence coupled with certain other conditions.
The draft document reveals that various sub-sectors like domestic, agricultural, industrial and ecological, will be allocated a certain share of the commodity, while a regulatory authority will be formed to oversee performance of the entities engaged with the supply of water and/or disposal of sewage. Appointment of undertakers for water and sewage services has also been suggested.
The plan proposes setting up a Water Resources Commission under the Irrigation Department, Water Services Regulatory Authority under the Housing and Public Health Department (HPHD) and undertakers under the joint control of respective local government and HPHD.
Punjab Irrigation Minister Mohsin Leghari says the plan will also deal with the supply side as workable suggestions for harvesting rainwater and hill torrents from the Sulaiman Ranges will also be made part of it.
However, the strategy lacks any proposal for rationalising water charges or abiana, which have been fixed at a flat rate since 2003-04. There are also no steps for changing the farming pattern to promote crops that need less water and introducing efficient irrigation systems.
A 2012 study by the Planning Commission says that with the existing abiana rate (Rs85 per acre for Kharif and Rs50 per acre for Rabi crops) Punjab recovers only 20pc of the operation and maintenance cost of the irrigation system. The government has had to pay for the rest to keep the canal system functional.
Minister Leghari admits that water pricing needs to be rationalised at least to the extent that it can meet the full cost of maintenance. He admits that while higher prices will influence water use behaviour, owing to the fear of political backlash the issue will not be raised, at least for the time being.
The draft Master Plan also overlooks the large-scale promotion of high-efficiency irrigation systems like drip irrigation and sprinklers for want of funds.
Mr Leghari candidly admits that the government will get a “breathing space” only next year as during the ongoing financial year they’ve just enough funds to meet infrastructure and other project needs of projects initiated by the previous government.
“You know that high-efficiency irrigation, such as the the drip system, involves huge investment. Right now, when our farmer is not able, or at least ready, to pay the rational cost of canal water and the government itself is deficient in financial resources, expecting us to introduce and promote efficient watering systems is like living in a fool’s paradise.”
Zoning of crops will, however, be done with the cooperation of the agriculture department with some incentives so that farmers may be attracted towards high-value but drought-tolerant crops and shunned away from sowing certain crops that are planted over and above the national need, he adds.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 19th, 2018