Waterlogging and salinity pose a major threat to the sustainability of irrigated agriculture
Waterlogging and salinity pose a major threat to the sustainability of irrigated agriculture

Syed Mohsin Raza Shah, a foreign-qualified grower, currently produces cotton on his farm in Tando Hafiz Shah, a taluka in district Thatta. He owns a total of 450 acres of land, but only 300 acres is cultivable. The remaining 150 acres of land are left unproductive.

“The water is becoming saline day by day,” Shah laments. Salinity is measured by total dissolved salts (TDS) in the water. “Currently, the cotton we are producing is grown in water with TDS of more than 1,500. This is very alarming,” Shah tells Eos.

Previously, Shah grew guar (legume) and lemon, too. Now, the major seasonal crops farmed on his lands are cotton, wheat and falsa. Due to the freshwater shortage in Thatta, local farmers used groundwater for cultivation. “When the monsoon starts,” explains Shah, “the high TDS-driven water starts to normalise.” But groundwater is no longer a viable option.

Salinisation has become a grim challenge for agriculture in Sindh. Despite other major issues that the local residents face — including inaccessibility to good education, inadequate health facilities, interrupted or no electricity supply — salinity is the most severe problem for the communities living in the coastal areas, as they rely chiefly on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Persistent waterlogging and salinity in the Indus delta call for a change in agricultural practices along the coastal belt

“Our lands are being usurped by the rising sea level, which is an exponential threat to our lives,” says Nisar Ahmed Thaheem, a social activist and resident of taluka Jati in district Sujawal.

Although the catastrophic situation of Sindh’s coastal belt — spanning the districts of Badin, Sujawal and Thatta — is hardly new, the coastal belt zone has been left particularly undeveloped in terms of livelihood opportunities, tourism, healthcare facilities, education and other development necessities. “Freshwater unavailability and drinking water insecurity have added insult to injury,” says Thaheem.

The deltaic communities live without adequate freshwater flows. As Thaheem explains, at least 10 million acre feet (MAF) freshwater is required downstream of Kotri to sustain the Indus delta. But this water has not been released in the last few years in the river — mainly because it is used up before it gets to Kotri. This has resulted in rising sea levels, which, in turn, cause land degradation. Due to land erosion, houses nearest to the coast become vulnerable to damage and the residents are forced to move to other areas.

Unorganised irrigation practices and drainage deficiency, too, have led to an increase in soil salts absorption.

According to Nasir Panhwar, an environmentalist, “Waterlogging and salinity pose a major threat to the sustainability of irrigated agriculture on about 30 percent of irrigated lands in Sindh. This situation is aggravated by the low efficiency of the irrigation system. Due to diversions of irrigation water and various barrages, the flow in the river decreases downstream and, due to the disposal of the saline water drainage into the river, salinity increases.”

“During the dry season,” Panhwar says, “the salinity downstream of the Kotri barrage frequently reaches critical levels, while the flow to the Arabian Sea frequently falls below the ecological sanitary requirements.” He adds that: “In coastal areas, vast agricultural lands have either simply become part of the sea or become salt-affected, with salt visible on the surface of the land, leaving the land unsuitable for agriculture practices.”

Recalling the time when the Indus River fed and nourished the farmlands, Thaheem points out that “The continued flow of the Indus River once had fruitful benefits for the entire coastal belt, with freshwater for drinking and cultivation purposes. Sadly, the situation has changed now.”

Water leakage from unlined canals and a large network of distributary waterways, and the irrigation surplus from the fields, has also caused the water table to rise close to the land surface. For the time being, application of irrigation water containing high levels of TDS to land is one of the major causes of salinity, as the evaporation of this applied water leaves salt behind. This land salinisation is one of the major desertification processes in Pakistan, which has affected about 6.3 million hectares.

Interestingly, saline agriculture is a big opportunity for agripreneurs, landlords, growers and the government itself. If saline agriculture is formalised, it could be turned into a viable source of crop production in the country, particularly in Sindh’s coastal belt and in poverty-stricken, water-scarce areas such as Tharparkar. But the government is yet to show concrete interest in rejuvenating the land.

“No government department or development organisation has visited us with viable solutions,” Thaheem says. “Once, a team from Karachi came to Sujawal for saline agriculture purposes. They tested the water and said [in Sindhi], “Paani mein jam namkiyat aahay” [The water is highly saline] and they never visited again.”

Dr Bakshal Khan Lashari, project director at the US-Pakistan Centre for Advanced Study in Water at the Mehran University of Engineering and Technology in Jamshoro, is dumbfounded at the lack of attention paid to a viable potential solution. “Saline agriculture technology is not new in the world,” he says. “It has been practised by different countries of the world, including Australia, on a broad scale. If Badin or Thatta use saline agriculture, the revenue of these cities would definitely rise. We are bringing in a community-based project on saline agriculture awareness and capacity-building that will be quite helpful in promoting saline agriculture in the coastal belt area, and in building the capacity of coastal communities.”

The agricultural salvation of Sindh’s people is in the reclamation of saline soil that is possible through various mechanical and biological methods. Dr. Hassan Abbas, a hydrology and water resources expert, argues that regenerative agriculture is the only sustainable way. “The sustainable solution is hidden in the transformation of old ideas or ways of agriculture into today’s innovative solutions, which guarantee sustainability for all for a long time.”

A 2015 report “Saline Agriculture and Crops in Sindh” published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) states that halophytes are one answer to soil salinity. “A halophyte is a plant that grows in water of high salinity, coming into contact with saline water through its roots or by salt spray, such as in saline semi-deserts, mangrove swamps, marshes and sloughs and seashore,” explains the report.

In relation to fruit and vegetable crops, the report points out that some fruit trees also endure saline soils, and some of them are greatly cost-effective. Among these varieties of fruits are those that can be used for medicinal purposes as well. The main salt-enduring trees include Barbados, guava, Indian jujube, key lime, papaya, prickly pear, Sapodilla (cheeku), sour orange, Spanish lime and tamarind. Indian saltwort (suaeda maritima) is also grown on the coast of India and its leaves are utilised for preparing medicines. Israel, in fact, uses saline water to grow onions, tomatoes, melons and other fruits and vegetables.

“The rising sea-levels and reduction in freshwater downstream of the Kotri barrage call for climate-smart agriculture in the coastal areas,” says Masood Lohar, an Indus delta expert and development professional. “We have to opt for salinity-resistant crops and practices. Also, the sustainable fish- and shrimp-farming sector is not fully capitalised. The government and donors must look at innovative ways to address land degradation.”

Meanwhile, when pressed on who he thinks is responsible for the low water levels, Shah, the farmer from Tando Hafiz Shah in Thatta, is circumspect. “We are equally responsible for the low water of the Indus River, because we have no respect for the environment,” he says. “What we have done with the mangroves in Sindh is also visible to all. So how will we stop the sea level from rising?”

The writer works in a project at a public sector university in Sindh. He can be reached at furqanhyders@gmail.com

He tweets @furqanppolicy

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 6th, 2020

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