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Pakistanis Seek Answers to Water Supply Problems

BY Alexis Matsui and Ria Misra  June 25, 2010 at 9:45 AM EST

Example of Pakistan's government-subsidized irrigation system. Photo by Alexis Matsui

ISLAMABAD — On a small patch of farmland just outside of Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, Karmran Ali Kiyania is warily looking at the sky, scanning for clouds. A wheat and corn farmer, Kiyania has no water source on his land and is dependent on the rain to keep his crop alive.

When water is scarce, like in the past year, he explains, he has nothing to harvest. The situation on Kiyania’s farm is also playing out on a national scale.

With shrinking rainfalls, depleting reserves, a growing population, aging infrastructure, and an economy that depends largely on agriculture,the water shortage is raising alarms all over Pakistan and forcing the government to act.

More than 90 percent of the country’s water supply is dedicated to agriculture — and much of it ends up going down the drain due to poor infrastructure and storage capabilities.

Pakistan only stores 9 percent of its annual water flow, while the world average is 40 percent, said Muhammad Ashraf of Pakistan’s International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. Further, he added, 60 percent of Pakistan’s water is lost due to a decades-old canal system and dams that are constantly building up silt, which can’t be filtered and makes water undrinkable.

“In 1947, we were at 5,600 cubic meters per person,” he said. “Now, we are at 1,000 per person.” The World Bank measures water scarcity as levels that drop below 1,000 cubic meters per person.

Many small farms depend on rain or use a form of irrigation that entails flooding their fields, which critics say wastes water because much of it evaporates.

As a result, said Shahid Ahmad of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, farmers have little flexibility to accommodate weather change.

“The farmer, he needs money every time at the time of planting, and he pays back only at harvest,” he said, adding that when water is unavailable, “farmers will turn into beggars.”

Much of Pakistan’s water supply comes from glacial reserves in the Himalayas, which are shrinking. This limited supply of water, combined with a growing demand from a burgeoning population, has raised fears that the problem will only become worse.

“The resources are not going to increase,” said Ahmad.

The water shortage is also being painted as an international political problem. A treaty between Pakistan and neighboring India has governed water rights between the two countries since 1960. But as supplies dwindle, Pakistan is accusing India of unfairly controlling the flow.

“The water issue is probably the most politicized issue between the countries,” said Michael Kugelman, editor of a report on Pakistan’s water supply for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, “and a major reason for that is the Kashmir issue. The water that flows into Pakistan flows through India controlled Kashmir. I think it’s important to be mindful that India has its own water crisis, too. Both sides have a lot at stake.”

Since so much of the water is wasted or unavailable through human error or unrepaired infrastructure, the role of governance becomes more important, Kugelman said.

A Pakistani government program is taking aim at the problem with what it calls “high efficiency irrigation systems” that use less water. Ahmad said the goal is to implement 250,000 acres of the systems over the next five years.

The new irrigation program, modeled off those that have proven successful in Israel and Germany, allows the government to subsidize the installation of sprinkler, drip and bubble irrigation systems throughout the country.

Shahnawaz Khan heads a company that manufactures the systems — the first of which he installed on his own 3,000 acre farm in Pakistan’s Punjab province to cut down on water waste. He says he is using half the water he would have if he used flood irrigation.

“Farmers are getting 40 percent of the water they used to get,” said Khan. “It is as precious as gold.”

Two years into a five year program, encouraged by former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, officials have installed systems across farms of all sizes in all four provinces of Pakistan.

The new system works with small private businesses to manufacture, install and maintain the machines on each farm.

Khan said the improved water supply systems yield 70-90 percent more crops.

Supporters of the program hope the higher and better quality yield will convince more farmers to implement the system on their land.

Khan feels the government is finally stepping into a much-needed role in the education of farmers and others in the agriculture business about the value of water.

“It’s the responsibility of the government to make (citizens) aware of their social responsibilities,” he said.

But an informal survey of five small farmers, including Kiyania — all with less than five acres of land — showed that they were unaware of the program and even if they knew about it, the price would be prohibitive. Although the government will pay for machine installment, farmers need at least a few hundred dollars to develop private water sources on their land and contribute to the maintenance costs.

Kiyania said he liked the idea of installing machines to help with irrigation, but he just didn’t have the money for it.

Under the program, the government would pay for the first installation of the machinery, which can range from a few hundred dollars to more than US$2,000 depending on the size of the system. Subsequent repairs, parts, and growth would be the farmers’ responsibility.

Because of the economic burden, the government has had most success with middle-class farmers with between 20 and 200 acres of land. Farmers with less land sometimes cannot afford the operational costs, and farmers with large plots have been slower to attempt major change, since they have so much at stake.

Ahmad of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council said the government effort is not enough to change farmer’s actions across the country, but the farmers must communicate among themselves and work together to combat the problem.

“The government alone cannot do it. Farmers in Pakistan are an under-utilized resource,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Reporting for this story was funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.