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Harnessing water in Balochistan’s dry lands

November 03, 2008

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BALOCHISTAN holds the key to future advances in agriculture and obtaining food security. Recently a discussion was held with a group of 50 grass-root farmers in Balochistan about agriculture without water. Water-less agriculture may be termed as a non-starter now as war on water is increasing and nations are trying and positioning themselves on water in the international field, and Pakistan is no exception to the rule.

The concept given to individual farmers was that the only irrigation system couldn’t be canals and tube wells, nor was it limited to rainfall.

Balochistan is arid in the severest possible kind, and the temperatures are ever increasing. Crops seeds no longer are tolerant to that kind of temperatures and are neither capable of bearing the salinity. The rainfall is erratic and the recent war on terror has impacted on the province with the ever increasing temperatures due to excessive use of arms and ammunitions.

So to the already existing issues of global warming, another issue that has not been discussed hitherto by anyone is added. Just imagine the release of heat from the sophisticated bombs the NATO forces are using.

What then is the answer and it seems to lie in the fact that there ought to be some way of reducing soil temperatures. That is not difficult for farmers who believe in creating their own microclimate.

Unfortunately there are no farmers who believe in that sort of intervention for they have always been told that the root system of trees interferes with the growth of the grains that are planted and that there is competition for scarce resources.

Sometime ago, I advised young farmers (and some of them graduate from abroad) to grow wheat in orchards and then compare the production with that grown conventionally. They were very skeptical but they followed the instructions and found that they had 50 per cent increased production from orchard planting of wheat.

The reason was simple. The temperatures of the orchard land were considerably less because of the shade provided by fruit trees. China has been doing this in forests that they have created of a tree called Powlonia, a remarkable one that has an erect bearing. I have tried this and so has the Pakistan Forest Institute at Peshawar.

Before we go to other issues, the causes of the loss of karezes, underground water systems that have been dismantled, should be discussed. One of the biggest factors has been the development process whereby the installation of tube wells has led to prodigality of the worst kind.

There is ample water and we waste the equivalent of three Tarbela dams in that province.

Water is available and the two districts of Chagai and Kharan are capable of feeding the country. Between them they hold 6.5 million hectares ready for wheat cultivation. The tragedy has been that when the project for wheat cultivation finally came into being, the entire food security effort was messed up.

In fact, the land under wheat cultivation, according to the target, has not been achieved. By now even if production were one ton per ha, the total quantity of wheat grown from this area would have been 6.5 million tons. The obvious query would be but there is no water. But it is wrong. Water is there at a depth of 60 to 90 feet and the way forward was to teach the farmers how to use that water efficiently. That was not done. The existing technical efficiency of the farmer had to be improved and the irrigation agronomist as well as the crop agronomist working in tandem could have done that.

The tale does not end there. The farmers were given the new ways of putting up trees that store water in the root system and that also fix nitrogen in the soils. These trees can grow in the harshest of conditions and are also a fodder tree.

The farmers responded by telling us that their forefathers had used coal from the coal mines (dust) and that the yield had increased but that the farmers had done away with this practice. They knew what to do but did not know what caused this phenomenon. This was explained to them. So some of them knew what was possible but did not know what caused it.

The natural fertilisers were discussed, and they knew that stones in the rocky areas release slow fertiliser. Along with this they knew what really myths were. Scientifically speaking Balochistan will deliver not Punjab and certainly not Sindh.

Talking of the Mirani dam, the Baloch were upset as the Qataris were going to take away on lease for 20 years, the land next to the Mirani dam for growing fodder for their animals.

The Mirani dam was probably built for this purpose whose precious water was to be supplied to a foreign nation and that we should step aside from these interests and work for the nation.

So with a judicious mix of water and of selected plants we can have our agriculture going in the province. There are other trees that can do the trick and that can be useful for the habitat and the environment.

The world around us has unlimited facilities and these facilities is our duty to determine. The bald mountains, once upon a time were, not bald and need not be so in the future.

The problem has been the political system that has not bothered to look at Balochistan positively. Its potential is unlimited and its people are delightful. Yes ,if you rough them up, should they keep quiet?