It may sound distressing and unbelievable to many that for producing a kilogram of sugarcane, 1,500-3,000 litres of water is consumed in Pakistan, but it is a reality.
The statement does not mean that sugarcane plants consume all that water during the growth process, but it does indicate extreme inefficiency in our water management practices.
Hundreds of thousands of million acre feet (MAF) freshwater is wasted every year when it flows from the hilly areas, where the sources of rivers are situated, to plains and then onwards to canals, big and small, and watercourses, and up to the vast fields where crops are irrigated with this water.
Besides wasting its freshwater throughout its long journey due to inefficient conservation techniques, the country mostly grows more water-intensive crops. For instance, sugarcane requires 1,500-2,500mm of rainfall (or water from other sources) to complete the growth cycle, according to a research study conducted by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR).
A huge quantity of freshwater is wasted for growing rice in different regions of the country. At 0.45-kg per cubic metre, Pakistan’s rice water productivity is 55 per cent lower than the average water productivity of one kilogram per cubic metre for rice in Asian countries.
University of Agriculture Faisalabad (UAF) Vice-Chancellor Dr Iqrar Ahmad Khan says that one kilogram of rice production requires 4,000 litres of water, which is not suitable in the prevailing situation. Talking to Cutting Edge at a university function, he lamented that Pakistan exports rice worth Rs. 2 billion at the cost of water worth Rs.10 billion annually.
Environmental journalist Syed Muhammad Abubakar says the livelihoods of a vast majority of the country are linked to growing more rice and more sugarcane, therefore the crops will remain popular. Without any education or awareness about how not to save water or how to utilise efficient irrigation methods, the wastage will continue, he believes.
According to the Pakistan Economic Survey, rice sowing has been on the rise during the past years. It was sown over 2,724,000 hectares three years back, and the area under the crop rose to 2,899,000 hectares the next year. Higher domestic prices and availability of inputs at subsidised rates, good advisory along with increase in export contributed to more land being used to grow rice, the survey explained. This 6.4 per cent increase ultimately yielded a production high of 7,442,000 tonnes. Last year, 6,849,000 tonnes of rice were produced in the country.
According to the survey, the area under the sugarcane crop also increased during the period. Sugarcane was cultivated on an area of 1,313,000 hectares three years back. Good economic returns encouraged the growers to bring more area under cultivation in the next two years. The 7.8 per cent rise in acreage translated into a 7.4 per cent hike in production: from 75.482 million tonnes to 81.102 million tonnes during the period.
The National Water Policy (NWP) data shows that around one million tube-wells in the country pump out about 55 MAF of underground water for irrigation, which is 20 per cent more than what’s available from the canals, showing that the agriculture sector is highly water-intensive.
The economists believe that a country like Pakistan, tethering on the edge of water scarcity, should de-incentivise the growing of water-intensive crops. In practice, this means convincing the farmers that they will not be hit by a financial loss if they switch to other crops. Dr. Tariq Banuri, the founding executive director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), agrees that Pakistan is wasting its water resources due to inefficient consumption patterns and negligible recycling. In a talk with Cutting Edge, he regrets that our systems are inefficient. He believes that in a bid to fight water scarcity, farmers should plant less water-intensive crops amid the situation when Pakistan is standing among countries ranked at the bottom of the per capita water availability index.
Dr. Khalid Mohtadullah, an expert in water resources policy, regrets that 95 per cent freshwater is utilised for agriculture in Pakistan and still the country is among those with the lowest productivity. The Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) says that the country has the lowest productivity per unit of water i.e. 0.13kg/m3 in the region, compared to India at 0.39kg/m3 and China at 0.82kg/m3.
Dr Iqrar Ahmad Khan, the UAF VC and an agricultural scientist, suggests taking measures, including an efficient irrigation system, increased water storage capacity, short duration varieties of crops and creating awareness among people about rational water usage, if the country wants the survival of its agriculture system.