This year the country has received far more rains and snowfall than usual. This is a blessing considering the precarious water situation that existed due to an unusually prolonged dry spell that the country experienced over last many years.
Thanks to heavy winter rains and melting of snow water, situation has already started to improve considerably. This improved water situation is likely to benefit agriculture the most as farmers had started to be adversely affected by extreme water shortages in many parts of the country.
Water situation in dams is likely to improve significantly as the snow starts melting and starts swelling rivers. This would solve the water problem for at least the next couple of years. Surplus water in the river system would hopefully mean excess discharge into Arabian Ocean through Indus Delta. This could halt, temporarily at least, the sea intrusion in the southern coastal belt of Sindh.
However, serious risks accompany heavy rains and snowfall that the nation must be aware of and the relevant departments of the government must prepare for. First of all, excess water in the river system means higher risk of floods, particularly if we get the usual monsoon rains during summers.
A comprehensive inspection programme should be launched to assess the readiness of irrigation infrastructure to handle high floods which may occur, if at all, sometime between August and October
Additionally, India could also release more water downstream. Devastations caused by recent floods are fresh in the nation’s memory and we must not see reoccurrence of misery that hits the poorest segments of society the most.
Those who understand the phenomenon well know that the recent floods that played havoc with country’s rural population and completely destroyed agriculture in affected areas were a preventable calamity. In fact it will not be wrong to say that it was caused, at-least partially, by the actions (and in certain cases by inactions) of people who were responsible for managing the situation.
There are two major reasons why there was more damage during last two floods when compared with similar floods that came in the 60s (a) encroachment of “katcha” lands and (b) lack of maintenance of irrigation system.
Katcha, which translate to “undeveloped” or “uninhabited”, is spread over thousands of acres on both sides of river Indus. This land was deliberately left uninhabited so that whenever Indus was in high flood (which used to be a yearly phenomenon till a few decades back) the water could spill over onto the katcha and hence no damage was caused to permanent settlements.
However, when occurrence of floods became less frequent and their intensity reduced, people started converting these lands into agricultural fields. The katcha happened to be an extremely fertile stretch of land due to silt being deposited every year when the area was inundated by floods. Relevant departments turned a blind eye as most of this was being done by influential people.
After this land grabbing exercise, people started building homes there as they wanted to live close to their illegally acquired fertile farmland. Soon they felt the need to build protective bunds (embankments) to protect their valuable land and other infrastructure from any potential flooding in future. All this resulted in water not finding any place to spill over during floods and hence it entered (or was willfully made to enter) the settled area causing massive devastation.
Second reason why these floods caused more damage than they should have was the complete failure of the irrigation infrastructure to withstand the floods even where it should have. This was caused by the failure of irrigation department to properly maintain the canal system.
Every year billions are allocated for de-silting of canals and for maintenance of the irrigation system. How much of this allocated budget is actually spent on keeping the irrigation system well maintained is anybody’s guess.
However, the ground reality indicates that the infrastructure is never maintained well enough to manage bigger than usual quantum of water. Failure to do de-silting means reduced capacity of canals to carry the sanctioned water, let alone heavy floods. This means either water overflows or the canal banks are breached.
Planners who designed the irrigation system in British India had planted trees with long life spans on the banks of all big canals. The idea was to strengthen the banks and at the same time control water loss through seepage.
Even today there are stretches where one can see magnificent Sheesham and Neem trees standing elegantly over the canals and efficiently protecting their banks. Indiscriminate cutting of trees has weakened these banks and has made them vulnerable to breaches especially during high floods.
While there is very little that can be done (at least immediately) to reverse the situation in katcha, a lot can be done to ensure proper maintenance of irrigation network so that it can better handle. De-silting is usually done in January to March when water requirement in the agriculture sector is generally low.
An audit should immediately be conducted to figure out the extent of de-silting actually done and to identify weak spots. Since there is time before peak sowing season starts for khareef crops, de-silting can be carried out at critical points.
A comprehensive inspection programme should be launched to assess the readiness of irrigation infrastructure to handle high floods which may occur, if at all, sometime between August and October. During last floods many gates of Sukkur Barrage could not be opened as they had not been maintained in decades.
Also, it should be agreed upon that in case there is a risk of canal breach that could result in drowning of settlements, the unauthorised bunds built to protect illegally encroached land in katcha will be broken. Way has to be given to water to enter the spillover katcha area and reduce pressure from canals.
The second big risk that got highlighted by the recent unusually heavy rains and snowfall is the impact of climate change. Erratic climate behavior is more dangerous for agriculture than for anything else. This directly affects our ability to produce enough food for local consumption. Agriculture productivity is also directly linked to our economic well being as most of our exports depend upon agriculture.
This year rains continued till March which means significant damage to wheat crop, particularly in southern and central parts of Sindh. Heavy showers in February and March may have damaged mango crop too as flowering in Sindh initiates around this time. Prolonged winters that were experienced due to continuous rains can affect date crop as the date palm performs better in hot and dry climate.
Government must work on war footings to develop a national program to deal with the effects of climate change on agriculture. There may be a need to accommodate newer crops and phase out crops we have been growing for centuries. After all, it is the climate that mostly dictates what we grow and what we do not grow. If the climate changes, so should our crops.
If planning is done now the process may be less painful. However, if it is left till farmers get hit due to reduced productivity and crop failures because of untimely rains and other erratic weather patterns then the cost will be much higher. Some of the damage may even become irreversible.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 15th, 2019