Tubewells hurting Punjab subsoil water health

THE importance of irrigation for the agriculture sector can be gauged from the fact that it can help double the per-hectare yields of crops, according to Agricultural Research Council of Pakistan’s estimates.

The availability of water gives an element of certainty in farming and helps growers make production and investment decisions besides facilitating inter-cropping. It also provides the condition needed for effective use of high-yielding seed varieties and chemical fertilisers.

In Punjab, growers have been irrigating their fields in various forms from time immemorial. In the areas where total annual rainfall is below the requirements of crops, irrigation was based on water from wells and ponds and by diverting water from perennial streams.

Groundwater is fast depleting and becoming saline due to excessive extraction, affecting farmers’ income

The scarcity of water has greatly hindered the growth of agriculture in the province. To overcome the shortage and unreliability (because of climate issue) of canal water, the government encouraged tapping of subsoil water for irrigation.

However, the use of tubewells did not start to spread fast until 1960s following the growing demand for food for a rapidly increasing population. Tubewells were initially meant to supplement canal irrigation but were also installed to control the menace of waterlogging and the subsequent salinity damaging many parts of the Indus basins.

The concept gained currency particularly in Punjab where, according to the Water and Power Development Authority’s 1980 report, more than 91 per cent of tubewells were located.

Dr Muhammad Javed, director of social and environment management at the Punjab irrigation department, says the start of manufacturing of water pumps in the Daska tehsil of Sialkot district in the 1960s and subsidy programmes by successive governments contributed to the use of tubewells for irrigation.

This source of irrigation did contribute to overcoming water shortage by meeting 30pc of the needs as the number of tubewells in the province swelled to around one million by 2014, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. However, pumping out of water heavily has now begun taking its toll on the health and quantity of the subsoil water.

Groundwater is fast depleting and becoming saline due to excessive extraction, hurting farmers’ income in the affected areas.

In a 1989 report authored by R. Johnson, the International Irrigation Management Institute warned of a looming crisis. But the warning was ignored, as the government introduced subsidies for the installation of tubewells as well as on the electricity tariff.

The Punjab irrigation department began conducting a survey of the whole province in 2004 for mapping the subsoil water quantity and quality. The 10-year project completed in 2014 and its data has been compiled, but the results have not yet been shared with farmers, the supposed beneficiaries of the scheme.

Dr Javed argues that unlike other departments, the irrigation department doesn’t have its representatives at district, tehsil and other levels. Therefore, it has prepared the data on a zonal basis, and ordinary farmers may not directly understand and benefit from the sharing of the data as they cannot locate their fields through the irrigation maps.

However, irrigation field staff has been mandated to extend the information to the farmers who contact them for the purpose.

The data shows that situation in the Sadiqabad tehsil of Rahim Yar Khan district bordering Sindh, and Lahore district is very critical as water table in both the zones is depleting at a fast pace. Other than Lahore, six districts — Multan, Sahiwal, Gujranwala, Pakpattan, Vehari and Khanewal — are suffering from the depletion of water table. In contrast, water table in 13 districts, with Narowal district in the lead, is rising.

Groundwater provides invaluable irrigation supplies and supplements canal irrigation for millions of farmers in Punjab. Enhanced agricultural productivity in the province can easily be attributed to the expansion of tubewell irrigation in the province, says an official of the Strategic Planning and Reforms Unit in the irrigation department.

“But this has led to unrestricted extraction all over the province to the tune of millions of acres of feet annually, causing serious sustainability concerns. Groundwater table is going down at an alarming rate as natural recharge rate is a lot slower than the pumping rate,” the official says.

Another issue is the quality of groundwater as some recent reports suggest increased levels of arsenic in Lahore and many other areas of Punjab because brackish water is intruding upon sweet water due to excessive pumping, the official said requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to talk to the media.

“It is a case of untreated water polluting our precious aquifer. A multidisciplinary action is needed. Environment, irrigation, industries and agriculture departments, Wasa (the Water and Sanitation Agency), city governments and chambers of commerce all need to realise their roles in this respect.”

Talking about the solution to the problems, he claims that the irrigation department is working on a draft law to regulate the groundwater extraction and introduce licensing for industrial, commercial and urban consumption.

“The draft is being shared with stakeholders for their feedback. The proposed law will try to address the situation in areas flagged for rapidly depleting groundwater table,” he adds.

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