Wrong choices

Published April 23, 2024
The writer is a civil society professional.
The writer is a civil society professional.

A FRESH conflict has erupted between Punjab and Sindh on the issue of irrigating a new command area. Punjab’s irrigation department sought a water availability certificate from the Indus River System Authority to irrigate two million acres of land under the Smaller Cholistan scheme. The department’s presentation reveals that the feasibility studies of the Greater Cholistan and Smaller Cholistan schemes have been completed to bring a total of 6.6m acres of new land under canal command. Sindh’s objection was overruled at Irsa and the certificate was issued in favour of Punjab, but the province submitted a detailed note of dissent against the proposal.

Similarly, in August 2023, Wapda had presented a proposal on another forum to irrigate 6m acres of land in Cholistan through the Sutlej river on its left bank.

A drive for large-scale corporate farming has already kicked off. Sindh’s last caretaker government had leased 52,000 acres of land in six districts where the newly created Green Pakistan Initiative intends to experiment with corporate farming. Developing new command areas in Cholistan is also part of the mega farming campaign; $40 billion in revenue and the creation of millions of jobs are being touted under the initiative.

Undoubtedly, Pakistan has large swathes of barren land. But macro-scale farming needs large amounts of guaranteed flood flows and an extensive irrigation infrastructure. Officials in Punjab, it seems, are given to conjuring up numbers to claim the availability of surplus water whenever they want to advocate new upstream diversions. Sindh has always rejected this data and interpretation. The debate can be endless but it is undeniable that Sindh frequently encounters sub-optimal flows that have led to ecological devastation in the Indus delta.

Macro-scale farming needs large amounts of guaranteed flood flows.

For the Cholistan dream project, Punjab has proposed an elaborate web of reservoirs and link canals. New reservoirs at Midh Ranjha, Shah Jewna and Chiniot, and new barrages at Hasilpur and Bahawalnagar on the Sutlej, are part of the scheme. Additionally, a new 195-kilometre link canal from the Chenab river is proposed for conveying ‘perennial’ flows to the Sutlej. Punjab claims that regulated flows of the Chenab will feed the Sutlej, which will eventually irrigate the Cholistan command area through two new feeder canals.

The Punjab irrigation department’s proposals for the Smaller Cholistan scheme entail data on water availability. Water availability from the first week of July to the first week of September has been shown as Punjab’s share from the flood flows. These flows range from 4,137 cusecs to 4,122 cusecs. Developing such a huge command area on the assumption of the availability of flood flows negates the fundamentals of irrigation engineering. Indus data shows that from 2001 to 2022, flows below Kotri Barrage remained less than 10 million acre feet for nine years. Who can guarantee that the Chenab and Sutlej rivers will receive surplus flows every monsoon?

India is aggressively damming the Chenab. According to The Diplomat, over 70 major hydroelectric projects on the Chenab are at different stages. Although they are run-of-the-river projects, their reservoirs will hold water for weeks. Amid climatic vagaries and frequent upstream diversions, the reliance on flood flows for developing a massive command area lacks logic. What if a dry spell persists for a few years in the Chenab and the proposed three reservoirs are exhausted? Will the command area be left parched and the crops allowed to wilt? The Chenab and Sutlej flows eventually reach the Indus and the proposed scheme will reduce flows to Sindh.

Pakistan’s population is projected to cross 400m by 2050. This poses a challenge for food security. Hence, the objective shou­­ld be to increase food pr­­oduction, which can be ach­ieved without controversial projects.

According to a report by the Zarai Taraqiati Bank, the national potential for total grain production is 100,933,000 kilogrammes per year, whereas the actual national grain production from 2015 to 2016 remained 38,227,000 kg. This means that Pakistan is producing only 38 per cent of its actual potential. Moreover, Pakistan’s per acre yield of 1.05 tons pales in comparison with China’s 1.9. India obtains 1.1 tonnes. In rice, Pakistan’s per acre yield is 1.25 tonnes which is less than half of China’s 2.6 tonnes. Even Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India are ahead of Pakistan with 1.7, 1.6 and 1.3 tonnes per acre respectively. Hence Pakistan has the potential to double its grain production from the existing cultivable land.

It would be prudent for the decision-makers to avoid the wrong choices and make attempts to increase crop yield and production through improved farm practices, modern water application techniques and quality seeds.

The writer is a civil society professional.

nmemon2004@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2024

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