NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 8

Need to adopt high efficiency irrigation

Every year in winters, when water flows in rivers go down to almost dead levels, experts and departments warn of a severe crisis in the years to come, and stress an efficient use of irrigation water for growing crops.

This year too, water experts have warned that Pakistan may face an acute water crisis, if no corrective measures are taken on a long-term basis. The experts suggest drip and sprinkling irrigation systems as a panacea for the issue and stress farmers to benefit from the subsidy being offered by the government for the purpose.

In the traditional irrigation system, Pakistan uses 90% of its water for agriculture, as farmers flood their fields to irrigate their crops. Pervaiz Amir, director at the Pakistan Water Partnership (PWP), a non-governmental organisation, says that over the past 30 years, Pakistan has gone from a country enjoying an abundance of water to one facing increasing water stress. Between 1990 and 2015, the amount of water available per person dropped from just over 2,170 cubic metres to about 1,300 cubic metres, according to a 2017 report by the United Nations Development Programme. That was the result of rapid population growth, urbanisation, industrialisation and water-intensive agricultural practices, combined with growing climate impacts, the report said.

Seeing the sensitivity of the issue, the federal and provincial governments have launched several projects to convince farmers to adopt new irrigation methods for saving water and growing more crops with less water. The National Water Policy 2018 also stressed high efficiency irrigation systems. The systems provide water directly to crops’ roots, leading to more efficient use of water resources as opposed to the flood irrigation methodology, which is widespread in the country.

The Punjab government’s Rs. 67.5 million project provides subsidies for small-scale farmers to install sprinklers and drip irrigation systems, some using solar power to run them. The subsidy is being provided to farmers who own land up to 15 acres. Corporate entities have also been involved. Under its “caring for water” programme, Nestle has partnered with the Punjab government to install the systems on 152-acre land. The partnership allows the company to bear the remaining 40% of the installation cost that farmers owe. The Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) has also set up a solar-powered high efficiency irrigation pilot project in Fateh Jang, where research is taking place on drip and sprinkler irrigation systems.

The Punjab government has also announced providing a 50% subsidy for running the drip irrigation projects on the solar system. Malik Muhammad Akram, head of the Punjab Agriculture Department’s water management programme, tells Cutting Edge that the provincial government had earmarked Rs. 3.67 billion to convert drip irrigation projects to the solar system by providing a 50% subsidy. He says that Pakistan receives sunlight about 8 hours a day which is sufficient to run motors and pumps of the drip irrigation system if farmers convert their drip irrigation to the solar system. The solar system is not only environment-friendly but it will also help farmers save precious money which they use to purchase diesel for operating drip irrigation installations, he explains.

With the motto “More crop per drop”, the Punjab Irrigated-Agriculture Productivity Improvement Project, run in partnership with the World Bank, aims to have new irrigation systems installed on 120,000 acres of farmland by next year. The system delivers small amounts of water only where needed, and helps farmers get higher yields on their farms, compared with the flood-irrigated lands. Malik Akram says that drip irrigation and sprinkler systems use at least 50% less water than flood irrigation, on average. He says that besides cutting water consumption by 50-60%, it also reduces the use of fertilisers by almost half, as less is washed away and wasted in the new system.

According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation report, a nine-year government effort to cut water waste, launched in 2012-2013, has so far helped 7,000 small-scale farmers make the move to water-efficient irrigation. Pakistan’s agriculture industry is worth about $50 billion, but could be worth seven times that much if farmers switch to water-saving techniques and better-earning crops, and the government helps build better access to export markets, adds the report. It suggests Pakistan farmers to switch to more high-value crops, like olives, using this technology.

Malik Akram says that so far 66,000 acres of land have been switched to water-efficient systems. It is a good sign for the province, and the country at large, the official adds, that nearly half of those were barren lands which have been put back into use as a result of the project in three water-scarce areas – Potohar, Thal and Cholistan. He says that work has already started on converting another 11,000 acres of land to new irrigation methods. He suggests that after farmers lay the pipes for the irrigation systems, they must remain undisturbed for four or five years, because digging them up and moving them is expensive.

However, Dr. Imran Saqib Khalid, director Governance and Policy, WWF Pakistan, expresses his fears about the new irrigation systems. He says that with a reduction in marginal costs of irrigation due to high efficiency systems, farmers can turn to high revenue water-intensive crops. This can result in further groundwater extraction and lead to a situation known as the Jevons paradox, where a technology may improve the efficient use of a natural resource but does not necessarily reduce its consumption. He says that high efficiency systems have the potential to address some of the country’s water challenges. Yet, given governance-related, administrative and operational issues, their sustainable adoption can face significant hurdles. Therefore, he says, the high efficiency systems need to be seen as part of a broad-based systemic and integrated response to the country’s water management issues, but those adopting the new system must be educated about their judicious use, which should not damage other resources of the country.