ONCE again, Sindh is facing a severe water shortage this Kharif season. The province-wide shortages that started from the start of the season were continuing till these lines were written on May 20. This crisis has created serious implications for crops, particularly cotton and sugarcane, inviting the ire of farmers, especially those having land in the tail-end areas of Sindh’s three barrages.

As if this was not enough, an advisory was issued on May 20 by the Indus River System Authority (Irsa), indicating another dip in the Indus river which would compromise water availability further for the lower riparian.

This issue dominated proceedings of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Water Resources meeting — chaired by Yusuf Talpur — in Islamabad, resulting in the appointment of a high profile committee. Sindh irrigation minister Jam Khan Shoro, backed by irrigation expert Zarif Khero, vociferously raised the issue of “missing flows” between Taunsa and Guddu barrages.

The team included the ministry’s joint secretary, the chairman of Irsa, Irsa Punjab and Balochistan members, MNAs Khalid Magsi from Balochistan and Riazuddin from Punjab, irrigation officials of Punjab and Sindh and Wapda’s International Sedimentation Research Institute of Pakistan (ISRIP).

It measured discharges at Taunsa, Guddu and Sukkur barrages with state of art devices like ADCP (Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler), which is a rare exercise in recent times.

Flows released downstream Taunsa barrage are to reach Guddu, Sindh’s first barrage over Indus. Missing flows between two barrages were invariably recorded at 16,000 cusecs in May which means flows were used in Punjab at a cost of Sindh’s share of water. Measurements by the ISRIP team at Guddu barrage upstream, to double-check discharges released from Taunsa, were continuing till May 20 to determine whether flows released from Taunsa were reaching Guddu inclusive of allowable losses.

“About 16,000 cusecs of flows went missing between Taunsa and Guddu, the measurements show,” Mr Magsi told this writer over the phone during an inspection while terming the situation in Sindh as “alarming”. Balochistan is not even getting water for drinking purposes [to be provided from Khirthar and Pat Feeder canals of Sukkur and Guddu barrages of Sindh].”

In August 2019, an Irsa team claimed to have detected water theft at Guddu and Sukkur barrages. Now Sindh’s figures at Guddu prove to be correct during an inspection and give credibility to Sindh’s argument which has always questioned the interprovincial distribution of water by Irsa, saying it is based on a three-tier formula.

Sindh says Irsa thrusts interprovincial water distribution based on a three-tier formula rather than the accord which puts Sindh at a great disadvantage as shortages are not proportionately shared. While Sindh and Punjab share shortages, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are exempted because of infrastructural issues. But practically, Sindh bears the brunt of shortage more than Punjab. Ex-AG Anwar Mansoor Khan’s inquiry report on the water issue supports Sindh’s view on this formula-based water distribution.

MNA Talpur wrote a letter to the prime minister urging him to have a look at the whole issue of water in the larger interests of federal harmony. The situation always gets aggravated when link canals, Chashma-Jehlum and Taunsa-Panjnad, are opened in Punjab and water is stored in one of the two main national reservoirs, Mangla, at a time when Sindh demands water for early Kharif sowing.

Tarbela and Mangla have been at a dead level since Feb 22, exacerbating the Sindh-wide shortage as canals run bone-dry.

Severe shortages coupled with increased temperatures have affected cotton plants, especially in Kotri’s command area. Sugarcane and mango orchards have been hit since April. The situation has not changed in Sindh with Kotri barrage bearing 66.5 per cent of the shortage, the highest among Sindh’s barrages, till May 20.

Annual cotton production has lately shown better results — 1.8m bales in 2020 compared to 3.5m bales in 2021 — in Sindh. It will be badly affected as crops sown in early Kharif didn’t get the required cycle of water. About 48pc cotton sowing was reported till May 12, 2022, against 55pc in the corresponding period on May 17, 2021.

While Sindh has proved missing flows, there are still a few points to ponder over that merit the provincial government’s attention and decision to ensure equitable distribution. Equity in water distribution mostly eludes small and medium-size farmers. This puts them at disadvantage for they lack clout in water governance as the elite, regardless of political, bureaucratic, police or law enforcement backgrounds, get water aplenty sans any check.

A variety of factors mar irrigation water distribution including direct outlets (DOs) from canals/branches and channels (both legal and illegal), diversion of irrigation water meant for agricultural land to unauthorised fishponds, and shifting of farmland from one barrage to another without required water allocation, water theft, cultivation of crops on forestland in the riverine area and irrigated by using massive canals waters.

“We should talk about the system’s weaknesses to improve efficiency considering challenges of water scarcity, changing cropping patterns and misuse of water. Culture of DOs has become a menace and aggravates situation whenever there is a shortage of this intensity,” contended Mahmood Nawaz Shah, Sindh Abadgar Board’s vice president.

Compared to the irrigation department, the situation is not much better for the administrative jurisdiction of Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority (Sida). “Rangers are not only called for the Rohri canal under the irrigation department but they are also deployed for the Nara canal which is under Sida. It shows that water is not fairly being distributed there either,” he said.

DOs were sanctioned by successive chief ministers and were un-approved. They work round the clock to deny lower riparian areas their due share of water. Similarly, close to 100,000 acres of land of Sukkur barrage’s Rohri canal was shifted to Kotri barrage’s command area. Such a huge acreage of land now gets water from Kotri barrage’s Akram Wah canal which was not sanctioned.

The water share of this land was not provided from Sukkur barrage to Kotri barrage. Akram Wah was designed for supplying water to Badin, another tail end district, where water shortages have attained alarming proportions.

This remains a major anomaly and undermines the water rights of farmers dependent on Akram Wah’s flows even though this canal already faces a design problem. The feasibly study to rectify the fault is a pending Sindh Water and Agriculture Transformation project, funded by the World Bank and to be executed by Sida.

“Water flows are rarely diverted from downstream to upstream but it is in the case of Akram Wah since the land of Rohri canal’s command area, that is fed by Akram Wah, is located upstream,” said Nabi Bux Sathio, vice president of the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture.

Disputes within Sindh’s barrages management lead to inequitable distribution. Kotri barrage’s chief engineer is often seen arguing with his Sukkur barrage counterpart. To quote Mr Sathio, mysteriously, the rising trend at Sukkur is not being replicated at Kotri proportionately over the last several days. “And the quality of water being supplied to Kotri’s command indicates it is the toxic water of Manchhar lake that is being supplied that will harm our land’s fertility,” he said.

Rangers’ deployment to control water theft is a financial burden on Sindh’s kitty as they charge for logistics. It is indicative of the department’s failure to check water theft. The Sindh government is working on the ‘Sindh Water Policy’ to have an integrated system and do away with the dichotomy of the Sida and Sindh irrigation department’s systems.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 23rd, 2022

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