Efficient irrigation


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About 90 percent of Pakistan’s water goes to agriculture. As the country’s population approaches 250 million and its urban and industrial water needs increase, this becomes untenable. If Pakistan is to reduce its water stress levels, it will need to ensure sustainable and efficient use of its water resources.

Our dependence on flood irrigation and the overuse of groundwater resources is already having deleterious effects on our increasingly limited water resources. Yet it is recognized that we urgently need to make progress in this regard. The 2018 National Water Policy, a document that was drawn up after consensus among all the provinces, talks about it.

The urgent need to rationalize water use and adopt cost-effective and reliable methods to improve irrigation and crop productivity has led to discussions on the effectiveness of high-efficiency irrigation systems (HEIS ). Such systems, which include drip and sprinkler irrigation, deliver water directly to the roots of crops, allowing more efficient use of water resources as opposed to flood irrigation methodology, which is widespread in Pakistan.

The country has focused on the development of HEIS in recent years. In particular, the government of Punjab provides a grant to cover 60 percent of the total cost incurred for the installation of HEIS under the Punjab Irrigated Agriculture Productivity Project. The grant is given to farmers who own land up to 15 acres. Legal persons are also involved. As part of its “water care” program, Nestlé has partnered with the government of the Punjab to install such systems on 152 acres of land. This partnership allows the company to bear the remaining 40% of the installation cost that farmers owe.

Under the Jalalpur Irrigation Project Command Zone Development Project, the provincial government provides an 80 percent subsidy to farmers who install high-efficiency solar-powered irrigation systems. The Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) has also set up a high efficiency solar irrigation pilot project in Fateh Jang, where research is underway on drip and sprinkler irrigation systems.

While the potential for water conservation is great when it comes to using high efficiency systems, the investment and operating costs can be quite prohibitive, especially for small landowners. In addition, capacity gaps need to be addressed in terms of farmers’ understanding of the climatic and soil conditions conducive to a particular high-efficiency system.

While not as labor-intensive as flood irrigation, high-yielding systems require a bit of technical know-how to ensure their long-term stability and durability. Water quality is also important in terms of efficiency. Sediment in irrigation water can clog sprinkler or drip systems, causing delays and additional costs for farmers.

The most pressing concern, however, is the efficient use of high efficiency systems while simultaneously ensuring that water use is limited. Research shows that with a reduction in marginal irrigation costs due to the deployment of high-efficiency systems, farmers could eventually switch to high-income, water-intensive crops. This can result in additional groundwater extraction and lead to a situation known as the Jevons paradox where a technology can improve the efficient use of a natural resource but does not necessarily reduce its consumption.

High efficiency systems have the potential to overcome some of our water challenges. Yet, given governance, administrative and operational challenges, their sustainable adoption may face significant obstacles. It is in this regard that high-efficiency systems should be seen as part of a large-scale systemic and integrated response to the country’s water management problems.

As such, we need a refocus on the link between food, water and energy to meet the challenges the country faces in water governance and food security. This will require an understanding of the challenges facing, for example, small landowners.

In this regard, policies will need to address behavioral responses in farming communities, in particular, but not limited to, overuse of water, as a shift towards high efficiency systems takes place. In addition, there is a need for more research into current high efficiency systems with regard to water use, social acceptability and technical concerns.

The writer is Director of Governance and Policy, WWF Pakistan. He tweets @ imran2u

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