Agriculture and water allocation

Aijaz A Nizamani

Agriculture & water allocation
Agriculture & water allocation

Friday, August 09, 2013 – A press reporter, has recently written a good piece about water below the Kotri barrage (July 14). The piece extensively got opinions from irrigation experts and farmers of Sindh and Punjab. The farmers, particularly feudal, of Sindh and Punjab are in perpetual quarrel to get more and more water and use it for an outdated irrigation management system.

Prior to the modern canal and barrage-based irrigation, almost the entire water used to flow its natural course through riverine forest areas (southern Punjab and Sindh) into the delta. Agriculture was practiced through inundation canals with limited cultivation in low-lying areas.

Since the cotton-based agricultural economy suited colonial rulers they changed the agricultural pattern to supply cotton raw material to textile mills in Manchester. There was a British Cotton Growers Association which lobbied for this change in the cropping pattern. This needed a new class and new economy based on the “desert bloom syndrome”, i.e. bringing as much area under canal irrigation as possible and diverting as much water as technology allowed from its natural course.

With every diversion in the form of a barrage, the people in riverine and delta areas (which at one time used to be the richest in the subcontinent) were deprived of their natural access to fresh water which had been with them for hundreds of thousands of years. A dam is not harmful to riverine and delta areas if it does not have a diversion design. Compared to it, barrages are solely meant for diversion and it has a significant negative impact on nature and the people living in delta and riverine areas of both Sindh and southern Punjab.

People (and experts) often debate and estimate how much Indus water should be allocated for a delta. The answer, depending on schools of thought, ranges from none (as some feudal lords tend to think in Punjab) to 10MAF under the 1991 water accord to 27MAF by IUCN. Some local experts put the figure at 35MAF. I think the question should be the other way around. How much is fresh water actually needed by agriculture in Indus command areas (where over a 41m-acre area is commanded in 19 barrage areas), and not how much is required by riverine areas or delta? The argument would be that water belongs to nature and it should be calculated how much water is needed for agriculture to achieve current and future levels of agricultural output. The water allocation estimate should be based on current technologies and should involve a full-cost recovery for irrigation supplies. Water withdrawals for agriculture are based on the technologies or systems of the late 19th century or early 20th century while the farmers (the lot of them certainly feudal) continue to waste water provided to them at 99pc subsidy! For this, my favourite analogy is that petrol allocation for your car today is based on fuel needs of a Prius (a high-efficiency hybrid car) and not on a 1930s Cadillac.

Despite this ‘powerful’ argument, our economy is elitist. The poor people in delta and riverine areas are economically a very weak segment in the political economy of Pakistan where a water policy ‘expert’ invariably means an irrigation (civil) engineering professional and water ‘stakeholder’ means a feudal lord. To add further woe to the misery, those feudal lords may now be sitting in the National Assembly or the Senate of Pakistan. Courtesy pakobserver


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