ISLAMABAD: The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has suggested to Pakistan to gradually phase out current water subsidies and divert a part of these to promote climate-smart agriculture and water management.

Water tariffs must be set to recover the full cost of maintenance of the irrigation system and groundwater needs to be licensed and priced, FAO recommends in its new report, ‘Water availability, use and challenges in Pakistan’.

Discussing water sector challenges in the Indus Basin and impact of climate change, the report suggested to the federal and provincial governments to have a deeper look at the current subsidies regime and water pricing to align with the challenges caused by climate change.

Water subsidies generally benefit upper-income groups in developing economies as the poor often have limited or no water access. Current water tariffs in Pakistan and agricultural input and crop subsidies in fertiliser, pests and sugarcane, promote water-intensive cropping (sugarcane and rice). Similarly, subsidised electric supply for tube wells encourages the over-abstraction of groundwater and poor irrigation practices, report says.

The report strongly felt that Pakistan must maintain and extend surface water allocation procedures to all water use sectors in addition to the irrigation sector. The surface water resources, which are increasingly used for the municipal and industrial supplies, should have a clear allocation to these sectors.

A paradigm shift from irrigation to water management is key in meeting water challenges, especially in changing climate and addressing the increasing needs of a growing population and other sectors including industries and municipalities. Although by 2050 agriculture will account for the highest increase, water demand for domestic uses (urban and rural) will rise sharply with the highest rate, it says.

Strategic long-term water management necessitates employing a standardised water accounting system that can provide comprehensive information on water use and availability and is especially resourceful for resolving tensions and gaps between water supply and demand. Water accounting provides critical information about the hydrological cycle, assesses spatial and seasonal rainfall variations with water extremities – information that can inform water infrastructural investments such as pumping, storage, and planning for climate change.

The report suggested that remote-sensing and GIS technology, in a combination of ground data, can be used to measure and monitor the evapotranspiration from basin, sub-basin, administrative units and agro-climatic zones) in the agriculture sector to determine actual crop water consumption and water productivity (production and income per unit of water consumed).

Demand management needs to be at the center of current and future water policies and strategies in order to sustainably manage water resources. As the gap between water supply and demand increases managing demand in agriculture and other sectors become more important. Strategies need to focus on improvements in water productivity, reduction in non-beneficial evapotranspiration, and reduction in source and non-source water contaminating practices. The safe use of non-conventional water resources in agriculture and non-agriculture sectors needs to be encouraged.

According to the report, sustainable management of groundwater aquifers must be considered in order to optimise the development of water resources, management, and conservation within a basin. Recharge in the areas with sweet groundwater zones should be encouraged, whereas, reduction in seepage in the areas with marginal groundwater quality and with saline groundwater zones should be reduced. Artificial recharge of aquifers is certainly one of the tools that can help in the sustainable use of groundwater resources, especially in areas with good quality groundwater, it says.

Irrigation systems in provinces require not only proper maintenance but also modern techniques and technologies for improved management and water delivery services. This will allow farmers to make timely on-farm decisions resulting in higher productivities and incomes.

High-efficiency water application techniques such as trickle/drip sprinkle, bubbler irrigation, and furrow bed irrigation need to be introduced and upscaled for improved water use, the ratio between beneficial and non-beneficial evapotranspiration, and water productivity.

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2021

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