Over 90 per cent of Pakistan’s fresh water resources are being used for agriculture. As water scarcity across the country increases, the requirement to attain sustainability remains a contested issue.
Government-managed irrigation and water supply services have not been able to provide effective services. Irrigation water users pay an abiana charge levied by provincial governments. However, these charges are insufficient to pay the cost of efficient operations, maintenance and replacement costs. The irrigation and drainage sector of Pakistan has thus been trapped in the cycle of inadequate funding, maintenance, supply, and recovery.
Since the 1990s, the World Bank has been trying to undertake institutional reforms in irrigation management. While promising a reform model which would ensure greater accountability to clients, the World Bank’s own assessments indicate that these reforms have failed to tackle the fundamental issues of more equitable water supply to farmers, irrespective of their level of affluence.
The World Bank has also provided our government massive loans for construction of canals and large dams over several decades, which in turn have created massive problems of waterlogging and salinity, especially in the heavily irrigated province of Punjab. To address the problem, the World Bank built drainage canals to divert agricultural run-off in the form of the Left Bank Outfall Drain and the National Drainage Program Project. But evaluations found the designs of these projects to cause contamination of drinking water supplies, damage to surrounding fields, loss of livelihoods and large-scale destruction of wetlands.
Despite this lacklustre record, the Government of Punjab has taken another loan of $250 million from the World Bank for the Punjab Irrigated Agriculture Productivity Improvement Program. This new initiative aims at maximising irrigational productivity by rehabilitation and up-gradation of existing systems to enhance water conveyance efficiency and initiating new irrigating schemes. One wonders what the exact location of these schemes will be, whose farmlands will reap their direct benefit and what will be their long-term environmental impacts.
This new project further aims to promote modern irrigation technologies to achieve greater agricultural output per unit of water used through use of drip and sprinkler irrigation systems, and provision of laser levelling equipment at subsidised rates. The elite farmer’s capture of the subsidy schemes is, however, a major problem which has repeatedly been witnessed in the past. For instance in the provision of tractors under the Green Revolution, or the ongoing government wheat procurement schemes, the beneficiaries invariably tend to be larger rather than smaller farmers. So while corporate and big farmers will have no problem procuring subsidised laser levelling equipment, whether smaller farmers enjoy the fruits of this latest World Bank-funded government beneficence remains to be seen.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 2nd, 2012.