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National water policy aimed at boosting output of the agriculture-based economy


The News, By Kaleem Omar

In a pre-budget move that is arguably the most important policy initiative taken by the present government, the federal cabinet on May 20th reviewed the country’s first ever National Water Policy and approved the formation of a National Water Council to oversee its implementation

The National Water Policy will have a far-reaching consequences for the country’s agriculture-based economy - boosting farm output, increasing production of export crops, restoring and preserving aquatic ecosystems, improving water quality, and guarding against over-exploitation of groundwater resources.

Major objectives include increasing the availability of surface and groundwater resources to the optimal level, achieving equitable and assured distribution of water, reducing the extent of waterlogged land from 14 per cent to 9 per cent of the canal command area, and bringing an additional 1.4 million acres of agricultural land under cultivation.

Other goals include establishing a water resource data bank to serve as a repository of all water resources data collected by various agencies; developing a comprehensive framework for designing water resources investments, policies and institutions; decentralising water service delivery; involving users in planning and management of water projects; and avoiding waterlogging and salinity problems associated with irrigated investments by monitoring water tables and implementation of drainage networks as well as best management practices to control water pollution.

The National Water Policy is also aimed at establishing a strong legal and regulatory framework to ensure that social concerns are met, environmental resources are protected, and monopoly pricing is prevented.

The major goal of the government for policy planning in the water sector will be to increase agricultural output by maximising crop production per unit of water in a sustainable manner, and the protection of the aquatic eco system from degradation through water-logging, salinisation, flood damage, soil erosion and pollution.

The National Water Policy was prepared by the ministry of water and power, with financial assistance from the Asian Development Bank. Work on drafting the policy began in 2001. After much discussion and debate at the federal and provincial government levels, the policy was given final shape in April 2005 and presented to the federal cabinet for approval last week.

The policy recognises that water has become an increasingly scarce resource, requiring appropriate institutional, economic and environmental management. It requires that attention be focused on key priority areas.

Some of the key specific objectives of the National Water Policy are to: (1) make more effective use of the surface and groundwater resources that have been developed to achieve greater farm productivity per unit of water; (2) achieve equitable and assured distribution of water; (3) bridge the deficit between O&M and cost recoveries; (4) increase the availability of surface and groundwater resources to the optimal level; (5) store and use river water flood surpluses through multipurpose storage projects for increased surface irrigation water availability, flood control and hydropower generation; (6) conserve the quality of water resources, both surface and groundwater; and (7) reduce the extent of waterlogged land from 14 per cent to 9 per cent of the canal command area.

Other key objectives are to minimise drainable surplus by improving the management and lining of distributaries, minor canals and watercourse; facilitate eventual evacuation of the saline drainable surplus from the Indus Basin to the Arabian Sea where feasible; introduce biological drainage with the involvement of farmers; strengthen farmers organisations and their capability to manage irrigation systems, drainage and O&M operations; strengthen and restructure water sector institutions to meet future challenges; utilise flood flows to augment water availability; improve flood warning and forecasting systems; and bring more agricultural land into production.

The policy calls for initially bringing 1.4 million acres of additional agricultural land under cultivation, with a further projected 1 million acres to be brought under cultivation in the second phase. This will boost the production of export crops and other farm produce, which, in turn, will help to increase the country’s export earnings, reduce the trade gap and ease pressure on the balance of payments.

The policy also calls for establishing a centralised Management Information System and computer database of river discharge data, canal diversion, cropped areas, canal maintenance, etc. for improving monitoring and management of irrigation systems. It also calls for improving research and development in the water sector and for conducting studies in response to national priority requirements.

It further calls for optimally developing water resources in the barani areas and arid zones. As a part of this endeavour, the Planning Commission last month approved a scheme to build 200 small check-dams on seasonal rivers and streams in Balochistan to impound rainwater flows that are presently being lost to the sea. The check-dams, also known as delayed action-dams, will be built at some of the 600 sites already identified by the Water and Power Development Authority. The scheme will bring several hundred thousand acres of additional land in the arid province under cultivation and give a big boost to its agricultural output.

The need for a National Water Policy culminated out of the fact that the days when Pakistan could take plentiful water supplies for granted are long gone. Water has become an increasingly politicised issue, with the provinces at loggerheads over the share of Indus Basin water each province should get.

Secondly, confusion has long existed over the existing water distribution set-up, which can only be resolved by a National Water Policy. The confusion stems from the fact that development of water resources is not a provincial subject but irrigation and agriculture are in the provincial domain. Flood control is a federal subject but drainage is a provincial subject, except for inter-provincial drainage. Each province distributes its share of water according to its own criteria, whereas the federal government conserves, develops and manages the water resources.

There has never been a central agency to coordinate water policies. The Indus River System Authority, which was created in the early 1990s to monitor implementation of the 1991 Water Accord on the sharing of water among the four provinces, has only partly filled the need for a central agency because many water-related issues remain outside its purview. The decision to establish a National Water Council is aimed at filling this gap.

The Indus Basin System may be distributed and allocated in various forms but essentially it is one big system with aquifers and surface water systems which do not have any administrative boundaries. Hence, the need for a National Water Policy to ensure the most efficient, most equitable and best use of the country’s water resources.

Given Pakistan’s burgeoning population, a shortage of fresh water is likely to be the most serious resource problem the country will face in the years ahead. To compound the problem, global warming is troubling irrigated basins like the Indus, where some 75 per cent of the cropland is irrigated.

New storage reservoirs will also have to be built on the Indus and other rivers to compensate for the reduction in storage capacity of the existing reservoirs - Tarbela and Mangla - due to silting. A project is currently underway to raise Mangla Dam’s height by 45 feet to make up for the loss in reservoir capacity due to silting since the dam was completed in 1967. But raising the dam’s height will only partially solve the problem. The problem is compounded by the fact that the loss of storage capacity in the Tarbela reservoir due to silting is much greater than the loss of capacity at Mangla. No scheme is yet underway to address the problem of making up for the loss of reservoir capacity at Tarbela.

There are several reasons to expect water shortages to grow worse. These include further increases in irrigated land for boosting food production to feed a growing population; and growth in the country’s urban population, requiring a large increase in water supplies.

Another serious long-term problem is salination. When irrigation water soaks down into the soil, it absorbs mineral salts from the earth, flushing them to the surface. As the water evaporates, these salts dry out on the fields, gradually destroying their fertility. According to one estimate, some 25 per cent of Pakistan’s cultivated land has been damaged in this way. Recovering poisoned fields is vastly expensive. The environmental damage done by ill-managed irrigation schemes is a time bomb that threatens to reverse the progress in food production made by past schemes.

Pakistan is currently using half its available run-off, that is, the water that falls on the country and is collected in rivers, lakes and streams, and is drawing half as much again from underground springs and aquifers.

It has been estimated that by 2025 demand will reach 92 per cent of the entire run-off. So Pakistan faces an awkward choice. Either it must reduce the amount of water used by farmers’ or it must make huge investments to develop new supplies and build more storage reservoirs. Feeding Pakistan in the years ahead will require such gigantic schemes to be successful - or it will require farmers to use water more efficiently.

At present only one-third of the water used for irrigation actually goes into making plants grow - the rest is wasted. Using water more efficiently would also bring environmental benefits.

Cities and their demands will also grow. In 1951, there was only one urban agglomeration in Pakistan with more than a million people: Karachi. Today, there are more than a dozen, with Karachi alone now at an estimated 14 million, Lahore at 8 million, and several others at well over a million.

Water supplies are also essential for industrial development. Up to now, few Pakistani cities have found their industrial development circumscribed by water shortages, and that is a considerable achievement. With competing demands for water, however, such shortages are likely to occur with increasing frequency in the years ahead.

Water supply in the lower Indus basin is falling behind agricultural and urban demand, particularly in Karachi where population growth exceeds the physical and institutional capacity of the public water system. Conflict between the provinces on the sharing of Indus basin water obstructs cooperation on lower basin water issues.

Of the 140 million acre feet (maf) of water annually available in Pakistan in a normal year, some 40 maf reach the Indus delta (though it has been much less in recent years). The delta supports important fish and shellfish industries. The lower reaches of the river have several unique riparian species, but are ecologically stressed by upstream impounding of fresh water and sediment.

In recent decades, surface irrigation and drainage problems have stimulated massive groundwater development involving hundreds of thousands of public and private tubewells. In May 2001, the government said it had directed the Water and Power Development Authority to install another 20,000 tubewells to augment groundwater supplies. But a great many more than 20,000 will be needed to meet the growing demand.

Meanwhile, work is in progress on several projects selected by Wapda for the development of surface water resources for fast-track implementation. The projects include the Rainee Canal, the Kachhi Canal, the Kurram Tangi Dam, the Mirani Dam and the Goml Zam Dam.

The Rainee Canal project is located on the left bank of the River Indus downstream of Guddu Barrage, from which the main canal for the Thar/Rainee lower canals will offtake. The project will provide water for the irrigation of about 412,400 acres of agricultural land and water supply to the local population.

For the Kachhi Canal project, a barrage is proposed to be built across the Indus at Mithan Kot, from which a gravity-flow canal will be constructed to irrigate about 513,000 acres of land in the Kachhi plain, along the right bank of the Pat Feeder Canal.

The command area of the project is located in the Dera Bugti, Kohlu and Naseerabad districts of Balochistan.

About 5,000 cubic feet per second (cusecs) of water will be carried through the new canal parallel to the existing Dera Ghazi Khan Canal and Dajal Branch Canal, about 100 miles of which will be in Punjab and 150 miles in Balochistan.

The project also includes the construction of a new irrigation distribution system for fallow but fertile land in Balochistan.

The Kurram Tangi Dam project is located on the Kurram River in the North Waziristan Agency, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of the NWFP. The dam site is 22 km upstream of the Kurram Garahi headworks and 32 km north of Bannu.

The scheme will create a storage dam for conserving a large amount of flood water in the Kurram and Kaitu rivers, which will add to the storage in the existing irrigation area of 278,000 acres. The stored water will also be used to irrigate about 84,500 acres of new areas, under perennial irrigation. The project will also generate hydro electricity.

The Mirani Dam project is being built on the Dasht River about 48 km west of Turbat in the Mekran region of Balochistan. Last month the Planning Commission also approved construction of a dam on the Hingol River, near the Coast Guard’s Aghor Camp in Bela district, Balochistan.

The objectives of the Mirani Dam project are to store 302,000 acre-feet of water for flood control and to irrigate 32,000 acres of land on the right and left banks of the Dasht River. The scheme will also supply water to the new port at Gwadar.

However, the provinces are still at loggerheads over whether the controversial Kalabagh Dam should be built. Punjab continues to press for building it, while the NWFP and Sindh remain bitterly opposed to it, arguing that the proposed Bhasha Dam would be a better and more economical alternative.

Resolving this issue is one of the first problems that the new National Water Council will need to address.