Centuries-old water distribution system intact in Chitral

Published March 22, 2019
The Ra Zhoi irrigation channel in Khot valley, Upper Chitral, which irrigates thousands of acres of land. — Dawn
The Ra Zhoi irrigation channel in Khot valley, Upper Chitral, which irrigates thousands of acres of land. — Dawn

CHITRAL: The centuries-old water use management system is still in practice which is purely indigenous in nature and catering to the needs of Chitral farmers by judicious distribution of water resources and assigning responsibility to the beneficiaries in maintenance of infrastructure commensurate to the share.

Sources said that most parts of Chitral had been facing scarcity of water both for irrigation and drinking purposes which necessitated formulation of regulations for water use. Though Chitral is home to 543 glaciers being the major source of Kabul River (called Chitral River here) flowing across Chitral valley, irrigation channels cannot be easily connected to it due to mountainous topography of the region.

The underutilisation of Chitral River can be gauged from the fact that it contributes to less than one per cent of the total consumption of water for drinking and irrigation purposes.

Geographer says system also in place for de-silting of channels

A former project manager of IUCN project in Chitral, Dr Inayatullah Faizi, said that the British were stunned to see the water regime in place when they arrived here in 1895 and recorded its details without making even a minor change in its basic structure. He said that water was also used to run grinding mills, transportation of water logs from forest to villages and raising ponds for hunting ducks.

“However, water was mainly used for agriculture which was the only source of sustenance of the inhabitants in the medieval era. It is the equitable distribution of water where we see the genius of then rulers who evolved a system based on justice and equity,” he said.

He said the units coined at that time for quantifying land and water were still being used for distribution of water, as the people had crafted certain wooden gadgets and apparatus for this purpose.

The major sources of water in the olden days were streams emanating from glaciers or springs in the highland meadows and traversing through the villages. Later, a few irrigation channels were added to that to use the river water. The people have been using locally-derived units for measuring the quantity of running water and its distribution. To cite one unit, ‘sorogh’ is the basis for water governance which in local language means ‘share of each person’.

A senior lawyer, Zafar Hayat advocate, said that for litigation purpose the units and terminology of irrigation system as evolved centuries ago were taken and accepted as they were in the olden days. He said that the small number of cases in the courts of law showed the fairness of the system of distribution of water resources. He said that the dispute arose due to departure from the regulations and customs regarding water governance.

Ghaffar Ali, a social geographer, said that there was a system in place for de-siltation of channels used for dual purpose of irrigation and drinking. He said that there was an institution called ‘merzhoi’, which provided for the role of arbiter, custodian and helper of water distribution. He said that appointment of these people was made at that time after royal ascent and the villagers paid them in kind in the form of wheat, barley and maize as well as goats or sheep.

Mr Ali said that now when the river water was being used for drinking and irrigation purposes by lift system using motor pumps, the centuries-old system of water distribution was still intact.

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2019

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