Sindh survives almost entirely on the water of the River Indus as there is very limited groundwater available. Rainfall in the province averages between 100 to 200 mm per year, while the evaporation rate is between 1,000 to 2,000 mm. Thus, Sindh is arid and it is only the Indus which gives life to the province. Regular surveys have not been carried out to assess the availability of groundwater in the province. Various sources estimate that its volume is between three to five MAF scattered in 28 per cent of the geographical area of Sindh. However, some experts suggest it to be less than these estimates. This water is found mainly along the Indus water channels and in the few natural underground streams. In drought conditions, excessive extraction of groundwater is undertaken to make up for the lack of irrigation water. This, in turn, has resulted in rapid depletion of the groundwater and filling up of the underground freshwater channels and reservoirs with brackish water.
The first Sukkur Barrage in the region was completed in 1932, some 80 years back, and then the second one — Kotri barrage — in 1955, and the last one — Guddu Barrage — in 1962 were commissioned. These three barrages irrigated all parts of the lower Indus region. The introduction of barrage-controlled irrigation resulted in more timely supplies for the existing cultivated areas. A major adverse consequence of the expansion of irrigation in Pakistan, especially in Sindh, was waterlogging and salinity, which rendered large areas of land uncultivable. There is little doubt that the expansion of irrigation has brought more land under cultivation and increased productivity which, in turn, has had a positive impact on poverty reduction and higher incomes for farmers. But this positive effect has also led to more land becoming uncultivable due to waterlogging and salinity, and raises legitimate concerns regarding the sustainability of irrigated agriculture.
Sindh has the world’s best irrigation system, which needs to be maintained effectively. Sukkur Barrage and its canals, which are imperative for the province’s agro-economy, are in danger because of the development of a large delta in the centre of its storage area and resultant cropping mainly because of violation of irrigation rules. The delta appeared to have been created in violation of irrigation rules and has resulted in the build-up of silt deposits in the middle of the storage area, instead of being flushed out. While the delta has reduced the capacity of Sukkur Barrage from 1.5 million cusecs to less than one million cusecs of water, the capacity of its three canals on its right side, including Northwest, Rice and Dadu, has also drastically decreased. Therefore, the rehabilitation of Sukkur Barrage on an emergency basis has become necessary to avert a crisis. In this backdrop, growers’ organisations have advised the government to hand over the task of building a new barrage as an alternative to Sukkur Barrage to England’s Engineering Council, which had designed the Sukkur Barrage as well as some other barrages. They apprehended that any harm to the barrage would not only render 62 per cent of its command area barren, but also cause a loss of 3.39 per cent to the country’s GDP, which amounts to more than Rs413 billion.
The Sukkur Barrage (formally called Lloyd Barrage), built by the British government on the Indus River, controls one of the largest irrigation systems in the world. It was designed by Sir Arnold Musto KCIE, and constructed under the overall direction of Sir Charlton Harrison, KCIE, as chief engineer. Construction of the barrage commenced in 1923 and completed in January 1932. Some of the canals are larger than the Suez Canal.
Sukkur Barrage was responsible for bringing large-scale awakening in Sindh as a consequence of economic benefits. A large number of students from rural areas turned up in the cities for education, immediately after the barrage became functional. Considering its significance, the Sukkur Barrage should be preserved and declared a national landmark. Moreover, efforts should be made to ensure its operation as per irrigation rules since any mismanagement of the barrage will have serious repercussions on the economy of Sindh.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 4th, 2014.