PAKISTAN is among the countries most dependent on irrigation. Its food security relies on the irrigation infrastructure that takes freshwater to more than 40 million acres of land in the canal command area. But, according to official reports, reservoirs were at dead level even in early June. Flows in the Indus and its tributaries were 151,800 cusecs, whereas the average five-year flow for the same period was 264,000 cusecs. Similarly, storage in dams was merely 148,000 acre feet against a 10-year average of 2.4 million acre feet. This shows that the threat of climate change is no longer a future one but a present-day reality with dire consequences for food and national security.
Pakistan’s water sector infrastructure consists of large dams, barrages and canals — all of them state assets. Water courses numbering over 100,000 are the last mile of the irrigation system. They take water from the distributary/ minor canals to the farmers’ fields and are community assets. But the irrigation system cannot meet climate change adaptation demands. Pakistan has low water storage capacity and its barrages are old. Similarly, vast parts of the canal network are leaky, leading to the wastage of half of the precious freshwater — equivalent to several Tarbela and Mangla capacities combined.
It is obvious that the government does not have the fiscal space to invest in water conservation. Policymakers would need to attract international investors for private finance and climate change aid mechanisms. This would require creative policies. Investment in water conservation investment — from upstream dams to farms downstream — would require tens of billions of dollars, as well as strong diplomacy, and smart plans to sell to international investors. It is important that farmers are made a part of these plans. The government should provide incentives to local banks and non-bank financial institutions to provide funds for watercourse lining and drip irrigation through private financial channels without the meddlesome role of government departments. This is doable if policymakers understand the situation on the ground. The demand for such a radical shift in the water conservation financing policy should come from the farmers. While the whole country stands to lose when a policy fails, in the case of freshwater and irrigation, the farmers are the first to feel the effects; it is they who should demand better services.
Climate change mitigation and adaptation plans relating to water do not exist and we now routinely face irrigation shortages in the non-Kharif and early Kharif period. The current budget reflects the narrow fiscal space, with debt servicing taking up half of the total revenue collection. Waiting for conventional policies to work will exacerbate the crisis.
We lack the fiscal space to invest in water conservation.
It is also important for policymakers to realise that the supply side aspect of water conservation investment must be in sync with the demand side to convince international investors or friendly bilateral donors to finance water needs. The cost recovery for macro-level investment like dams may continue to come from general taxes but new financing for water conservation at the tertiary level (ie water courses and farms) should entail full-cost recovery plans involving government and consumer/ farmer contributions. But the irrigation user rates were fixed in the 19th century, so who will invest tens of billions of dollars now? Irrigation user charges known as abyana are less than Rs100 per acre per crop — ie less than 50 cents.
Understandably, increasing abyana charges would upset the farmers, especially considering the quality of irrigation services they receive. Since the Indus Basin is located on a slope and its original design did not involve lifting irrigation water through mechanical means to bring it to the farmlands, this lifting of water adds to the farmer’s cost of doing business. This writer, himself a small-scale farmer, lifts water at three points to bring it to the crops. So it is natural that farmers would resist an increase in abyana charges. The problem has been compounded by suppressed food prices to keep urban food consumers happy as they have more destabilising power compared to rural food producers.
Policymakers and irrigation consumers ie farmers, particularly those who are sitting in our parliament, have to break the cycle of mistrust and come up with a vision and a practical plan if this country has to build up resilience and successfully cater to its food security and water needs. Whether we like it or not, Israel is the model for both irrigation infrastructure development and farm-level water conservation. Israel started work on its irrigation infrastructure in the early 1950s with the money the new state received from the Germans as war reparations. It was a unique way. After 80 years, the world sees how visionary those policymakers were.
The writer is a farmer.
Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2022