Potential damage to key cash crops as Pakistan grapples with low water levels

Indus River System Authority advisory committee opts to continue with three-tier formula for water distribution among provinces

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is facing a significant water shortage of 37% during the current Kharif cropping season, which could potentially damage important cash crops such as cotton. This situation comes months after unprecedented floods in the country. 

The Indus River System Authority (Irsa) held a meeting on Thursday to discuss the water situation, and it was decided to continue with the current three-tier formula for distributing water shares among the provinces.

During the meeting, it was noted that Punjab and Sindh would face a 27% water shortage in the early Kharif season and 10% in the late Kharif season. However, there were differences between the two provinces over conveyance losses. Conveyance losses refer to the amount of available water that is lost to theft, leakage, evaporation, or absorbed by soil or canals and cannot reach farmlands.

To resolve the issue, a committee was set up, led by Irsa’s member for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, “to determine actual system conveyance losses.” The committee will be responsible for determining the actual amount of water loss and devising recommendations based on actual discharge measurements to resolve the problem.

The meeting was attended by representatives of the four provinces, as well as members of Irsa and the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda). The water availability criteria were finalized based on Wapda’s revised Tarbela 5 operational constraints. As a result, it was agreed upon with a consensus that the irrigation water shortage in the Indus zone would be 37% in early Kharif and 15% in late Kharif. The shortage in the Jhelum-Chenab would be 10% in early Kharif and negligible in late Kharif.

The cropping season in Pakistan usually lasts from April to September, and key crops include rice, sugar cane, cotton, maize, and mash. The meeting noted total river flows at about 95.32 million acre-feet (MAF) and total system losses at 13.96m acre-feet. The total water availability for the entire season, including 14.58m acre-feet in early Kharif and 55.42m acre-feet in late Kharif, would be 70m acre-feet. However, after allowing 7.26m acre-feet of mandatory discharges for downstream Kotri for environmental commitments, the total water availability at canal heads for distribution among the provinces would be just 62.74m acre-feet.

Balochistan and KP remain exempt from a cut in their water share due to infrastructure constraints. Punjab estimated conveyance losses at 7-8%, while Sindh estimated losses of 35% and 40% between the Chashma and Kotri barrages. The sources said that Sindh had recorded its position for removing the exemption of water cuts from Balochistan and KP and water distribution under Para 2 of the 1991 water apportionment accord. However, the meeting agreed that Irsa could not change distribution practices currently in place.

The water shortage is a cause for concern as it could lead to a decline in crop production and negatively impact the economy of the country. The situation highlights the importance of managing water resources efficiently and effectively to avoid such shortages in the future.

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