The Indus Basin, which has sustained civilisations across millennia, presents new challenges to the people and states of the region. The way these challenges are addressed will shape the economic future of the people who share the Indus waters. Let us identify on the basis of the latest evidence; the nature of the water problem at hand.
Three hard facts have emerged: first, the per capita annual water availability in the Indus Basin has declined from 5,121 cubic metres in 1962 to 1,396 cubic metres in 2011. The total annual river flow of the Indus Basin has declined from 119 million acre feet (MAF) in 1960 to 113 MAF in 1997. The rate of decline accelerated in between 1998 and 2011 with the annual flow of rivers in the Indus Basin falling to 102 MAF by 2011. In the case of Chenab, the average annual flow has declined by 12 per cent between 1960 and 2011, while in the river Jhelum it has declined by 17 per cent. The decline in river flows could quite possibly be due to the lower precipitation in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, which constitute the watershed region of these two rivers. In any case, the declining river flows and increased seasonal fluctuations in these flows create the imperative for Pakistan to improve its water management and increase water use efficiency. Collaborative efforts by India and Pakistan for afforestation and management of the watersheds could slow down the increased sedimentation of rivers which reduces the life of dams downriver. Reforestation in the watershed could also prevent devastating flash floods downstream during heavy downpours in the catchment areas.
Second, the monsoons have shifted from the eastern part to the western part of what is Pakistan today, while the timing is delayed compared to the past. There is also reduced glacial melt in August, a month in which glacial melt historically was high. The increased variability in the timing and location of monsoons and the change in the temporal pattern of glacial melt will further accentuate the observed shortages of water in the Indus Basin during planting seasons. It is, therefore, crucial for the people and the Government of Pakistan to realise that Pakistan has shifted from being a water surplus to a water-deficient country and that this shortage is likely to get worse in the decades ahead. This has urgent implications for policy and public action to improve the irrigation efficiency as well as the water use efficiency.
At the moment, out of every 100 MAF of water pulled out from the rivers for irrigation, 63 MAF are lost during transportation before the water reaches the farm gate. It is necessary, therefore, to line canals wherever possible and construct concrete watercourses. The application of water on farms is also highly inefficient due to the lack of land-levelling and wastage of water during its flow to the root zone of the crop. An institutional framework for incentivising farmers to improve on farm water management is required. The actions to be incentivised and supported through extension services are the use of laser-levelling, drip irrigation and replenishing the organic matter in the topsoil so as to reduce the water requirement per acre. It may also be worth considering a change in the cropping pattern towards less water intensive crops.
The third important dimension of water shortage is the imperative to improve the extremely low water use efficiency in the Indus Basin. In the case of the top five food producers in the world (Brazil, China, France, Mexico and USA) the water use efficiency is $23.80 per cubic metre of water used. In the case of the Indus Basin, water use efficiency is as low as $3.34. This suggests the need to devote greater cropped acreage to high value-added farm products such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, inland fisheries, livestock and dairy products. Facing the challenge of water shortage in the Indus Basin requires new initiatives in public policy and interstate cooperation.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2012.