Allahrakhio Khoso, a farmer in the Thar desert, has found a water-efficient way to grow crops. — Zulfiqar Khoso/ The Third Pole

Tending orchards in Thar desert — without flowing water

A farmer is using clay pitchers to irrigate his orchard and crops, using 70 per cent less water than conventional methods.
Updated 03 Aug, 2020 06:28pm

Most of the inhabitants of the Thar desert can grow crops only after a downpour has transformed the arid land into lush greenery. But Allahrakhio Khoso, a 60-year-old farmer, does not need to wait for rain.

In the city of Nagarparkar, in the shadow of the Karoonjhar mountains, Khoso has made an orchard in the desert a reality by using matkas or pitchers — an everyday object more commonly found in the home than in the field.

After eight years, Khoso has 400 berry trees, 70 lemon trees, three mango trees and four pomegranate trees. He grows vegetables such as okra, bitter melon, onions, chilies and tinda (a type of squash), as well as watermelon, on his land in the district of Tharparkar.

Khoso can grow berries, lemons, mangoes, pomegranates, watermelon and vegetables. — Photo by Zulfiqar Khoso
Khoso can grow berries, lemons, mangoes, pomegranates, watermelon and vegetables. — Photo by Zulfiqar Khoso

In pitcher irrigation, a large clay pot with a wide bottom and narrow top is buried in the ground and filled with water. The water is slowly released into the surrounding soil and absorbed by the roots of nearby plants, minimising the amount of precious liquid lost to evaporation.

In pitcher irrigation, a large clay pot is buried in the ground near a plant and filled with water. — Photo by Zulfiqar Khoso
In pitcher irrigation, a large clay pot is buried in the ground near a plant and filled with water. — Photo by Zulfiqar Khoso

Water in the desert

Rich in coal but poor in water, Thar is the largest desert zone in the province of Sindh. Its residents depend on rainfall; most people fetch their daily water from wells and store rainwater in water tanks. In summer, many wells run dry and groundwater becomes brackish.

To this day, some wells are dug without modern machinery. Recently four workers dieddigging a well when the walls fell in on them.

Water is so important a commodity that it even features in marriage negotiations; before a proposal is accepted, the parents of a bride will ask the groom’s family how close the nearest well is. In greetings, people also ask about sweet water wells.

Nevertheless, living in the desert does not mean thirst and poverty are inevitable.

How does pitcher irrigation work?

"Many years back, one of my friends came to visit our village and he discussed pitcher irrigation," said Khoso. "I got the idea and started working on it. In the beginning, it was quite hard but now it looks very simple. I thought that if I could make my farm green without rainwater, then I should go for it."

Khoso has made an orchard in the desert a reality. — Photo by Zulfiqar Khoso
Khoso has made an orchard in the desert a reality. — Photo by Zulfiqar Khoso

To install a new pitcher, Khoso first makes a small hole in the bottom of a pitcher. He puts a rope through the hole, then buries the pitcher, packing mud and sand tightly around it. This leaves only the mouth of the pitcher exposed, which Khoso fills with water. The water seeps through the porous clay and soaks through the rope into the sand, where it is absorbed by the roots of the crops he has planted close by. As well as natural fertilisers, Khoso uses mud from Virawah, a city near Nagarparkar where there is an ancient lake.

Each pitcher is two to three feet wide and holds 10 litres of water, which will irrigate the soil for 15 to 20 days. New pitchers are better for irrigation because they are more porous and, once in place, will last three years. Khoso fetches water roughly every 10 days — there is a well on his farm, and another nearby.

For trees, Khoso uses one pitcher per plant; sometimes two pitchers for mango trees, planting trees 25 feet (7.6 metres) apart. The amount of water needed depends on the crop, with trees requiring more pitchers. Khoso now has 400 pitchers irrigating his orchard.

Khoso believes this is a more effective method than drip irrigation, where pipes release a certain amount of water and fertiliser per minute directly to the roots of each plant. He said that while drip irrigation is suitable for vegetables, for orchards pitcher irrigation can deliver water more efficiently to the plant.

He calculated that 280 litres was enough for his 400 berry trees for 10 days.

Pomegranates are one of the crops Khoso has been able to produce using his method. — Photo by Zulfiqar Khoso
Pomegranates are one of the crops Khoso has been able to produce using his method. — Photo by Zulfiqar Khoso

The efficiency of this system is now accepted. One study that compared melon yields found that pitcher irrigation used two cubic centimetres (cc) of water and yielded 25 tonnes of melon per hectare, while the flood irrigation system used 26 cc of water and yielded 33 tonnes per hectare.

"We do not have any canal or [conventional irrigation] so it's our duty to save water as much as we can," said Khoso. "I have tried to make the desert green and I have been earning my bread and butter through this orchard. In the last season, I earned PKR 130,000 from onions and almost PKR 600,000 from red chilies. I am preaching for the usage of pitcher technology… those who want to try this should start from their homes on a small scale."

Local trade

Khoso buys his pitchers from Hussain Kumbher, a potter. "This is my forefather’s profession; I earn a good income by selling the pitchers to Allahrakhio," said Kumbher. "I have sold more than 1,000 pitchers since he has been working on his orchard. People in the Thar desert still use pitchers to store drinking water, but harvesting through pitchers is beneficial for our business — I get PKR 100-150 per pitcher."

Khoso buys his pitchers from Hussain Kumbher, a local potter. — Photo by Zulfiqar Khoso
Khoso buys his pitchers from Hussain Kumbher, a local potter. — Photo by Zulfiqar Khoso

Kumbher lives in the village of Khaark, almost 25 kilometres from Nagarparker. He told The Third Pole he is the only potter in the area selling pitchers for irrigation as well as household use — so it is unlikely other farmers in the area are using this method.

Experts pitch in

Pitcher irrigation is not common in Pakistan. Many farmers demand canals to irrigate their farms, but experts say canal irrigation wastes a lot of water through evaporation and overuse. In the future, different farming methods could mean bumper crops are grown with a small amount of water.

"People are not familiar with pitcher technology hence it has not been so common. In Sanghar district, some farmers have planted lemon orchards through this technology. In cities, people use this technology on a small scale. This is very beneficial in semi-arid zones, like the Rajasthan desert of India. Where no water supply is available, farmers use pitchers to boost their agriculture," said Ismail Kumbher, a professor at Sindh Agriculture University in Tandojam.

The professor added, "People in the desert are not privileged — they don’t realise the importance of pitcher technology and in our country it is not cheap, therefore we don’t see this water-saving technology on a large scale. This is also helpful for kitchen gardening. I believe the Sindh government and Sindh agriculture department should come forward to facilitate those farmers who are using pitcher technology with limited resources." He said the government should provide training on pitcher irrigation and pay for or subsidise the cost of pitchers.

Muhammad Waseem Kalro is senior scientific research officer in the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council’s Arid Zone Research Institute in Umerkot. He told The Third Pole that the pitcher irrigation method uses 70 per cent less water than conventional irrigation for any crop.

Despite its benefits, the technology is restricted by its very nature to places and plants that can be usefully grown using it. Kalro said that pitcher irrigation is more effective in sand than soil and "is only suitable for desert areas… If we use this technology on a national level we need more water and more pitchers, and it would be very costly, so this is best at a household level and in those areas where water is brackish. Especially in Thar, now people are consuming fresh vegetables from pitcher farming. Therefore, this is no less than a blessing for local people. We are working here in Umerkot and have developed different arid agriculture models."

Idrees Rajput, a water expert and former secretary of irrigation, agreed. "Pitcher irrigation has a very limited scope. It may be used for fruit and vegetable cultivation. No mass irrigation is possible with pitcher irrigation. This is helpful in desert areas where people can’t cultivate their land with conventional irrigation," he said.

The header photo by Zulfiqar Khoso shows farmer Allahrakhio Khoso.

This article was originally published by The Third Pole and has been reproduced with permission.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (24) Closed

Jul 30, 2020 08:18pm
Fantastic idea. Double edge advantages. Having orchards in remote areas plus using very limited water as well. Bravo.
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Taj Ahmad
Jul 30, 2020 08:30pm
My salute to all farmers in Pakistan and all around the world, what we eat 3 to 4 times daily, we may not have it if our farmers don't grow for us.
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Jul 30, 2020 08:44pm
Really great farmer. Good achievement. Looking like Israel agriculture achievements.
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Dr Ibrahim
Jul 30, 2020 09:08pm
Wonderful idea, practical and doable. Kudos to Mr Khoso!
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Enlightened One
Jul 30, 2020 09:23pm
This is brilliant! Drip irrigation using cost effective efficient and local solutions!
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Jul 30, 2020 09:32pm
Great ideas. May be others can follow.
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Jul 30, 2020 10:26pm
Awesome yar, it should be used in whole sandy areas of Pakistan.
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Jul 30, 2020 10:31pm
Fantastic idea. I gave heard about Israeli research in desert agriculture, our Tharparkar brothers are not that behind in research. Sindh government should take it up and promote it.
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Jul 30, 2020 10:32pm
Good initiative. More research is needed to find out how this technology can be useful for the farming in different kinds of soil.
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Jul 31, 2020 12:28am
Beautiful, Salaam, hats off to the farmer. This is called leadership, I'm sure lot many others will follow him.
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Syed Nazim
Jul 31, 2020 12:56am
The success is because peasant is directly grower no Zamindar in between. If Zamindari is abolished in Pakistan (like most of the countries) tiller will put his heart and soul in the field and agriculture production will increase so much that we will be feeding world.There will be no poverty in rural Pakistan.
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Vivek wani
Jul 31, 2020 01:25am
Nobel should be awarded for such Nobel work.
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Jul 31, 2020 04:16am
Thank you Akhtar Hafeez for highlighting this great example. We need to share more of such examples that speak for themselves.
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Jul 31, 2020 06:32am
Absolutely brilliant. This is whats needed in Naya Pakistan
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Jul 31, 2020 06:53am
Guess what, he never went to any college or university. But he is focused and knows how to use common sense. Excellent.
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Jul 31, 2020 07:21am
Brilliant idea.Federal government should take this up on a national level and fund them.Sind government will not do anything.Great way forward for the poor Farmers living in the desert area to make their honest living. Micro finance institutions should step in.
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Jul 31, 2020 08:23am
Pakistan officials instead of appreciating are trivialising the innovative approach of a farmer. Pakistan government can incentivise the method by providing water hoses to farmers and try to bring water through big pipe lines from nearby water sources if possible.
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Amjad Durrani Engineer USA
Jul 31, 2020 08:28am
This is drip irrigation, also known as trickle irrigation, functions as water moves below the root zone drop by drop, employed in water short arid climate w/high evaporation rates. As in the above case the delivery system can be based on local practices or other methods which range from very high tech & computerized to low tech & labor intensive. Lower water pressures are usually needed than for most other types of systems, with the exception of low energy center pivot systems and surface irrigation systems, and this system can be designed for uniformity throughout a field or for precise water delivery to individual plants in a landscape containing a mix of plant species. Although it is difficult to regulate pressure on steep slopes where above system can come handy, or pressure compensating emitters are used, so the field does not have to be level. High tech solutions involve precisely calibrated emitters located along lines of tubing that extend from a computerized set of valves.
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Jul 31, 2020 09:32am
Govt must devise a system that flood water be diverted to Thar via pipes. It will not only reduces water scarcity in desert but save the loss from floods.
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Abid z.khan
Jul 31, 2020 09:39am
very good is cheaper needs more study .why cannot we use two or more ropes and irrigate more plants.we can use bigger water storages.
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Jul 31, 2020 10:41am
Poor people. Feel bad they have been let down by their own leadership.
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Jul 31, 2020 01:16pm
Very good
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Imad khan
Jul 31, 2020 03:16pm
Talk about walking up amd down, carrying pitcher full of waterall day in the scorching sun. Kudos to this guy. However, to scale up, or expect others to do it unrealistic. Can you imagine the amount of manpower to irrigate one hector of land wih this method? Drip irrigation is a much more efficiant way to go imo, however obviously more expensive.
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Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad
Jul 31, 2020 06:18pm
Great effort but still a long way to go.
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