NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 27

Nurturing hope: small dams reshape water management in Pakistan’s arid regions

Amidst the escalating water crisis in Pakistan’s arid regions, the implementation of small dams has emerged as a transformative solution. These structures, designed to capture and harness rainwater, hold the promise of revitalizing agriculture, increasing water tables, and uplifting communities grappling with droughts. Led by dedicated experts and supported by government initiatives, the strategic construction of small dams offers a glimmer of hope in the face of water scarcity.

Over the past nearly two decades, the dwindling water resources have triggered concern among authorities and the general public in Pakistan. The freshwater reservoirs are rapidly drying up, raising apprehensions of an imminent water crisis in 2025. The quantity of water available for crucial sectors such as drinking, power generation, and agriculture is diminishing, yet unfortunately, no concrete remedial measures are being implemented.

Water specialists assert that Pakistan must formulate a judicious, politically impartial, and comprehensive water policy to avert a grave crisis in the forthcoming years. They posit that the primary issue lies not only in the scarcity of water but also in the mismanagement of water resources. At present, a staggering 97% of the country’s freshwater is utilized in the agricultural sector, constituting 18% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Unfavorable agricultural practices, archaic flood irrigation methods, inadequate employment of hybrid seeds, and subpar water management are exerting an enormous strain on the available water resources.

Masood Ahmed, a renowned water specialist involved in World Bank initiatives in Pakistan, highlights numerous pressing issues regarding water management in the country. These include the absence of basin-specific water resource management and the lack of an effective system to mitigate evaporation and prevent water theft (which accounts for a staggering 40% loss of water). Speaking to Cutting Edge, Ahmed reveals that Pakistan also grapples with the challenges of 13% of cultivable land being saline and 30% of agricultural land suffering from waterlogging. Each year, the water crisis exacerbates during winter, yet efforts to find viable solutions fall short in addressing this monumental problem. Once again, the nation experienced water shortages, particularly affecting power generation and irrigation. Agronomists report that this year, canal water scarcity severely impacted red chili, cotton, and rice crops in Punjab and Sindh.

According to Masood Ahmed, unequal access and distribution, population growth, urbanization, rapid industrialization, limited storage capacity, and climate-related risks collectively contribute to the complexity of water management in Pakistan. Climate change induces shifting weather patterns across different regions of the country, necessitating tailored solutions that cater to specific areas rather than adopting a generalized policy. Ahmed notes that since the 1980s, domestic water supply and irrigation management have increasingly embraced participatory and privatized approaches, prioritizing physical targets over capacity building.

The water expert laments that Pakistan’s storage capacity is a mere 10% of the average annual flow of its rivers, significantly lower than the global average of 40% storage capacity. He expresses disappointment that the country’s initial National Water Policy, unveiled in 2018, insufficiently addresses crucial aspects such as water-sensitive urban designs, risk management against natural hazards, and trade involving water-intensive crops. Any comprehensive policy aimed at tackling these challenges should incorporate customized, location-specific solutions that account for the topography, source water bodies, receiving water bodies, and socioeconomic context of each setting.

Emphasizing the significance of water storage and management, Masood Ahmed underscores the need for the government to prioritize these aspects alongside conducting transparent assessments of water inflow and outflow in every province. He commends a notable water storage project initiated in the drought-affected Tharparkar region of Sindh.

Citing a study published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Ahmed highlights the positive impact of a provincial government project that enables farmers to harness rainwater through the construction of small dams. This scheme enhances sustainability and empowers farmers to generate higher incomes from their land, resulting in income increments of over 60%. While the captured rainwater constitutes less than 20% of the water utilized by farmers, the majority still originates from groundwater sources.

A research paper published in 2020 by a group of agricultural and environmental researchers indicates that these newly implemented rainwater harvesting dams serve a dual purpose. Not only do they provide farmers with a reliable water supply, but they also contribute to the replenishment of groundwater levels, as a portion of the dam water seeps into the earth.

Murtaza Wahab, the environment adviser to the chief minister of Sindh, confirms via telephone interview with Cutting Edge that the provincial government has successfully constructed 60 small dams powered by rainwater in the remote drought-stricken areas of Nagarparkar and Kohistan over the past six years. Each of these dams possesses an average storage capacity of 100,000 gallons. Wahab further reveals plans to construct an additional 23 small dams within the next three years.

Masood Ahmed points out that Tharparkar, with an average annual rainfall as low as 9mm and frequent droughts, greatly benefits from the small dams. These structures have proven to be a game-changer for local farmers. Notably, onion farmers in Nagarparkar reported an unprecedented yield worth Rs600 million last year, setting a record for the province. Ahmed firmly believes that these dams have long-term advantages for the local population. With abundant water availability in these previously water-scarce regions, more barren land can be cultivated, leading to an increase in livestock numbers.

Ghazala Channar, the deputy chief of water resources in the Ministry of Planning, reveals that Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are actively involved in constructing small dams. The federal government allocated Rs20.4 billion to build over 500 small dams nationwide. These new reservoirs will play a crucial role in mitigating floods, alleviating poverty, fostering agricultural development, raising the water table, and providing clean drinking water.

However, the Thomson Reuters Foundation report cautions against perceiving small dams as a one-size-fits-all solution for arid regions of the country. It states that the effectiveness of using small dams to recharge groundwater supplies is limited to areas with freshwater zones. In regions like Sindh, where 80% of the underground water supply is saline, the captured rainwater from the dams has minimal impact on replenishing the water table. The report suggests that both provincial and federal governments in Pakistan should discontinue subsidizing electricity for commercial farms operating large tube-wells, which contribute significantly to the depletion of underground water levels.

Furthermore, the report emphasizes the need for authorities to assist farmers in adapting to their existing water supply. It recommends that farmers in drought-prone areas should consider cultivating less water-intensive crops. Specifically, the cultivation of rice and sugarcane, which have high water requirements, should be discouraged in regions such as Sindh and Punjab.

In the race against dwindling water resources, the small dams initiative in Pakistan’s arid regions represents a significant stride towards sustainable water management. The success witnessed in Tharparkar and the growing commitment from provinces like Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa signal a collective determination to mitigate the water crisis. However, it is imperative to recognize that small dams alone cannot solve all water-related challenges. A comprehensive approach, encompassing efficient water allocation, crop diversification, and stricter regulation of tube-well usage, must be embraced. By blending innovation, adaptation, and prudent policies, Pakistan can forge a path towards a water-secure future for all its citizens.