AS Pakistan heads towards water scarcity, promoting economic use of water has become as important as boosting renewable resources.
In agriculture, the concept of economising the usage of water gained currency about a decade ago. But in the absence of a national water policy, efforts made for conserving water have so far not made a major impact.
By 2014, Pakistan had withdrawn 94 per cent of its total renewable water resources. Water withdrawal for agriculture had also reached 94pc of the total available resources for this sector, according to the 2015 yearbook of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Gauged by the production index of 100 (with base year 2004-06), net food availability stood at 94 and net output of crops at 107, according to the FAO. The gap indicates the level of post-harvest losses and weaknesses in value-addition chain of food crops.
The measuring of net output of crops at 107 at an index of 100 despite 94pc water withdrawal for agriculture means “we are producing less food with more water”, says an official of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research. This highlights the need for economising water use on the one hand and boosting crops’ yield on the other.
On farms and fields that get water from canal networks, efficient water management depends largely on improving water courses, using laser land levelling, bed and furrow irrigation, gated pipe irrigation, pressurised irrigation, and acquiring best practices for groundwater extraction and distribution.
Pakistan is still awaiting its first national water policy despite the fact that its draft was formulated in 2003, whereas India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka all have their policies in place for more than a decade
Things have improved in the past decade, chiefly due to increased governmental spending, but also because of some investment made by large farm owners, such as in gated pipe irrigation and pressurised irrigation.
In deserts and in areas not fed by canals, water efficiency can be achieved through water harvesting and on-farm storage, pressurised irrigation, tunnel farming, and plasticulture, i.e. the use of plastic materials in the irrigation system and other agriculture applications.
This is where Pakistan is lagging far behind others, mainly due to the absence or dearth of government funding and coordinated investment by the private sector.
During the past 10 years, a number of tunnel farms have sprung up in Punjab and in Sindh, but promoting tunnel farming on a large scale requires policy vision and kick-starting public-private partnership projects, experts say.
Last month, the Punjab government initiated a programme to provide 50pc subsidy on the installation of tunnel farming infrastructure on 3,000 acres of land. The provincial government is already giving a subsidy of up to 60pc on the installation of drip irrigation systems.
In August, the Sindh government unveiled a massive $185m World Bank-funded Sindh Irrigated Agricultural Productivity Enhancement project to promote drip irrigation across the province over a period of six years.
In Balochistan a $100m, ADB-funded water resource development project is under way. It will be used not only for constructing new dams, but also for flood irrigation or spate system of water supply, officials say.
The spate system is useful in the areas where farmers don’t have access to ordinary canal water and, instead, manipulate water flows of seasonal floods in rivers and streams to temporary canals or water ways to use in farms and fields.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, authorities have been trying to use the gravity flow of irrigation system with financial help from the federal government to divert rainwater and store it at a higher altitude area and then channel it back to lower altitude areas for use on farms and fields.
Pakistan needs more of the above-cited initiatives to bridge the gap between growing demand and scarce supply of water for agriculture. For this year’s Rabi crop, a water emergency has already been declared after authorities came to know that shortage of water can shoot up to 40pc, double the initial estimate of 20pc, recent media reports suggest.
Meanwhile, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) wants the government to come up with the much- awaited national water policy to ensure efficient water management in the future. The central bank recently suggested that there is a need to connect water pricing to the actual amount of water consumed by a crop or an area.
The SBP’s annual report for the 2016-17 fiscal year contains a comprehensive special report on water management that suggests various other measures.
The report laments the fact that Pakistan is still awaiting its first national water policy despite the fact that its draft was formulated in 2003, whereas India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka all have their water policies in place for more than a decade.
The task of structuring our national water policy became more complicated after the 18th Amendment to the Constitution under which water distribution for agriculture, domestic and industrial purposes became a provincial subject. The draft water policy now awaits approval from the Council of Common Interests.
A delay in announcing the water policy “is a major setback as the current policies are inadequate in addressing the upcoming water challenges”, warns the SBP report. “Further delays would only damage the long-term growth prospects of the economy.”
The report also calls for introducing water rights system wherein head-end farmers — the ones who are entitled to use a certain amount of water but their needs are low at a particular time of the year — could sell their water rights to tail-end farmers, who at that time need more water than their quota.
This should help improve the most efficient use of water and boost agricultural output.