Home | TheWaterBlog

TheWaterBlog: If you want to share unique images and observations in this section, or would like to know about syndicating these posts, send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.!

 

posted by Frank van Steenbergen
January 15, 2013

alt

 

It is the world’s largest irrigation system, also called ‘the Indus Food Machine’-  14 Million hectares of irrigated land in Pakistan, distributed over more than 40 interconnected canals commands.  This mega-system produces, among others (in 2012), 9 million tons of rice (including the famous ‘basmati’ variety), 23 millions tons of wheat and 10 million bales of cotton.

There are two things that are very remarkable about this enormous irrigation system. Its first amazing feature is that there are no clear water rights. Water allocations exist on paper but are outdated. They were made long before the construction of the Tarbela dam that was finalized almost forty years ago in 1974. The Tarbela Dam regulated the flows of the Indus river, storing the abundant water in the monsoon season and releasing it during the dry ‘rabi’ season.  This evens out peaks between the wet and dry periods and makes more water effectively available.  The obvious thing to do next would have been the adjustment of water allocations both at the level of the main canals and at the level of the individual fields. This, however, never happened. As a result, water allocations became  ‘fuzzy’ – based on a situation that no longer exists.  In many canal commands there is no single register and sometimes two or three lists of farmer water entitlements circulate. It leaves a large room for ‘discretion’ by the engineers and linesmen operating systems: if a field engineer announces that water will be provided as per the original rights, it sends shivers down farmers’ spines. 

alt

Interestingly, the second amazing feature of the Indus surface irrigation system is that more than half of the water at farm gate now comes from groundwater – provided by a million or more shallow tubewells, located all over the canal system (see picture).  These shallow tubewells have done a lot to improve the reliability of irrigation as they can be switched on on demand, ensuring that the farmer is less dependent on either awkwardly timed (or in other cases erratically available) surface water. Of course, eventually its all the same water: the shallow aquifers are fed by excess surface water seeping in from canals and fields. The development of the nearly one million private shallow tubewells in the last 30 years has created a magnificent buffer that has sustained a near doubling of the number of crops grown annually.  The use of groundwater is especially high in areas where the groundwater is naturally fresh. However, even in areas with saline groundwater farmer tubewell operations supplement surface water.  Tushaar Shah in his phenomenal book ‘Taming the Anarchy’ has called this ‘the conjunctive reality’. 

alt

This intense use of groundwater resulted in a remarkable feat during the 1998-2002 drought years. In this period the releases from the Tarbela dam to the canal system were 20% less. But surprisingly, crop production in the Indus Food Machine did not go down. In fact, it went up slightly.  The reason was a more judicious use of water, especially a much better balancing of the use of surface water and groundwater. The most spectacular place was Sindh Province at the tail end of the Indus system. For historical reasons, surface water allocations per hectare in Sindh are much higher than in other parts of the country: whereas average supplies nationally are around 700 mm, in Sindh they are often 50-150% higher. As a matter of fact, actual water allowances in Sindh are too high.  One reason is that in the distant past, many of Sindh’s canals were earmarked as ‘semi-perennial’. What this meant was that in the pre-Tarbela regulation days these semi-perennial canals received high flows during the wet season but were closed off in the dry season. After the regulation of the flow this changed and the ‘semi-perennial’ canal commands also received flows during the dry period. This was not necessarily a good thing and ‘water logging’ (the presence of water in the root zone of the crop) increased in Sindh.  This has knocked down crop yields. Additionally, the moist environment and standing water also increases the incidence of diseases such as malaria or (for livestock) liver fluke.  The wise thing to do in Sindh would have been to expand the area under irrigation after more and better-regulated flows became available. Instead the additional water was used to drown oneself. In the remarkable 1998-2002 drought period, groundwater use increased (see picture), surface supplies reduced and the area suffering from water logging dropped from 2 million hectares (40% of the total irrigated area in Sindh) to 250,000 hectares! Unfortunately this remarkable period did not serve as an eye-opener and water deliveries were back to their dreadful ‘normal’ soon thereafter. As a result, water productivity across South Asia differs considerably: whereas one cubic meter of water produces 1.3 kg of wheat in North India, it produces 1 kg of wheat in Pakistan’s Punjab province and 0.7 kg in Sindh Province.

The reason for these impasses are anybody’s guess – but one overriding reason is the fact there is no water management to speak of in the world’s largest irrigation system. Basically the system is run as a utility with a small number of professionals (one executive engineer is typically in charge of an area of 200 to 300,000 hectares) primarily concerned about how water is delivered where and to whom – dealing with a lot of political interference in the process. Another reason is that Sindh Province has locked itself in an awkward discourse. Being the tail-ender, it always claims its water is stolen upstream. Street protests making this political point are rampant. The fact of the matter, however, is that water allocations to Sindh are very high for the land area they serve. Also, often more water is diverted at the main barrages than officially recorded and acknowledged. The sum total is that there is too much unnecessary water logging and that the opportunities of adding a probably more than half a million hectares of irrigated land in Sindh is not considered.

With all the concerns around global food security, the gigantic Indus Food Machine could do a lot better. Several things would make a tremendous change: (1) settling the water allocations and (2) in the process, systematically adjusting the surface water allocations to a canal command with the use of groundwater in a canal command- channelling more surface water where there is already intense use of groundwater and reducing flows to stimulate more pumping in other areas (limited to what groundwater quality allows).

The story above is not unique to the Indus system in Pakistan. It applies to other mega-irrigation systems in South Asia as well. The Sindh story, for instance, is very similar to what happened in the drought years in the Krishna system in Andhra Pradesh (India). Production went up, especially in the tail end systems, and drainage problems disappeared. Again, after the drought was over, the water deliveries went back to their dysfunctional suboptimal status quo.

More than 30 years ago, Robert Chambers described water management in mega canal systems (at least in South Asia) as ‘a series of blind spots’.  This remains true today and several of the largest irrigation systems are heavily underperforming. They could serve a much larger area; produce more per hectare and per unit of water; contribute to healthier environments and help restore the confidence of common people in government and governance. Despite all the concerns around global water scarcity, the scope for improving mega irrigation in South Asia remains largely unfulfilled.

  • The Origin of Measuring Time

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen December 31, 2012Several sociologists such as Johan Goudsbloem have chronicled the fascinating story of time – how uniform systems of measuring time developed even in the unconnected world of the past– with hours being equally long all over the world, minutes starting at the same time and calendars synchronized. Trade and international travel were major driver...

    Read more

  • Good Neighbours

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen December 24, 2012The coming year will be the International Year of Water Cooperation. While there has been much debate on coming ‘water wars’ and there are sordid examples of international conflicts,  there is a much larger amount of cooperation fortunately  – especially at local level where people know each other and are friends, neighbours and fellow hu...

    Read more

  • Mekong: A River, its people and Big Dams

    posted by Michael Victor, CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. document.getElementById('cloakab4177fd8e2d258570eface4fe900bc5').innerHTML = ''; var prefix = 'ma' + 'il' + 'to'; var path = 'hr' + 'ef' + '='; var addyab4177fd8e2d258570eface4fe900bc5 = 'm.victor' + '...

    Read more

  • Controlling the micro-environment

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen December 13, 2012Whereas pressurized irrigation systems- such as drip and sprinklers- are widely promoted to save water, their largest benefit may lie not in the water saving, but in the higher production they make possible. While this is not new (the so-called Comprehensive Assessment estimated already that micro-irrigation systems achieve 5-56% higher yield), it o...

    Read more

  • A Shuimu, or How A River Came About

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen December 03, 2012In the Jinci temple near Taiyuan (China), amid an amazing variety of historical and spiritual buildings and millennia old trees there is the home of the serene River Goddess – or Shuimu.  This small place of worship dates back to 1563. Its story is one of the every-day miracle of the kind-hearted.A girl was betrothed to a man who was weak and inv...

    Read more

  • Eye on the Nile

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen November 28, 2012Early 2011, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia surprised everybody by announcing the construction of the Millennium Dam (subsequently renamed the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile) not far from the border with Sudan – at a location identified in the past as ‘the Border Dam’.The timing of the announcement (as so many other mo...

    Read more

  • Cold weather irrigation

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen November 22, 2012With demand for fruit and vegetables increasing all over China, greenhouses have made an appearance in more unlikely, cold weather areas such as Lishi county in the mountain areas of Shanxi. The greenhouses in Lishi resemble the semi-arched structures common in other parts of the Province - but with several modifications are made. To deal with the c...

    Read more

  • Prosopis: The Green Scourge

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen, Abraham Mehari Haile, Abebe Demissie and Francesco Sambalino November 12, 2012It has turned large hot dry plains green in the last thirty years – but still it is a major scourge that goes largely unattended: mesquite or under its official botanical name prosopis juliflora. In the last thirty years this hardy well rooted shrub made its way from Latin America to al...

    Read more

  • Groundwater under the West Bank: more than H2O

    posted by Rozemarijn ter Hoorst October 29, 2012Groundwater in the West Bank is much more than just H20. It is more than a resource used for drinking, bathing, and washing. Water in the West Bank has become a political commodity for a substantial part, governed at the highest political levels.Israelis and Palestinians become more divided every year by the construction of the separation wall (also ...

    Read more

  • Does basin management make sense?

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen October 22, 2012It is fair to say that basin management has been the celebrity cause for integrated water management. In principle, basin management brings all hydrological process together. As such it is instrumental in finding a balance between different but highly inter-related  interests in water use. Basin management is, for instance, the centrepiece of the mu...

    Read more