Water — the perpetual apple of discord

Water shortage in the Indus river system remained severe this season due to the unusual behaviour of river flows. The effect of shortage in Sindh, however, is more pronounced as the province is lower riparian in the whole system. The behaviour of river hydrology is attributed to the climate change phenomenon as water regulators term temperature variations in catchment surprising for the river system.

Starting in April irrigation water shortage is continuing even in June, dealing a severe blow to summer crops, especially cotton. Growers and irrigation water managers fear the shortage might spill over to the upcoming Rabi that starts in November. Sindh started bearing the brunt of inadequate water flows in perennial canals in late March when lower Sindh’s growers were cultivating cotton.

The situation worsened as national storage, Mangla and Tarbela, hit dead levels in February and March respectively. Sindh’s agriculture sector, primarily and largely, depends on the storage of and supplies from Tarbela. Only occasionally water flows are released from Mangla to Sindh, often leading to acrimony between provinces over interprovincial water distribution and filling of Mangla at a time when Sindh needs flows the most in Kharif season.

A substantial drop in flows this year led to joint flow measurement at Guddu under the umbrella of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Water Resources. Sindh remained crying hoarse against what its irrigation officers and minister Jam Khan Shoo described as missing flows between Taunsa downstream and Guddu upstream thus depriving Sindh of considerable water flows — 16,000-19,000 cusecs — at a critical time.

The interprovincial distribution of water remains contentious as water shortages continue dealing a severe blow to summer crops, especially cotton, and sparking fears for the upcoming Rabi season in November

The flow measurement exercise became a bone of contention after Punjab refused to accept the findings that endorsed Sindh’s viewpoint over missing flows between the Taunsa-Guddu reach. Such a report on the findings of the standing committee’s members — assisted by experts like Mehar Ali Shah of the water resources ministry — is not yet released officially despite Sindh’s repeated demands. “Why don’t they [committee] share written findings with us even after verbally confirming our viewpoint? And why didn’t the Standing Committee give its ruling?” queries Mr Shoro.

The Indus River System Authority (Irsa) has been getting much flak from Sindh for what stakeholders believe is discrimination in the interprovincial distribution of irrigation water during crucial times of cotton sowing. Irsa, however, strongly rejects such claims. Currently, Sindh’s member Zahid Junejo is heading Pakistan’s top water distribution body as chairman.

But interprovincial water distribution, however, often comes based on voting when water flows availability becomes a contentious issue among members from provinces in Irsa. Voting places Sindh at a great disadvantage.

“Tarbela’s storage should have been at 1,450ft by June 30 but it had 1,399.48ft storage,” points out Irsa director operations Khalid Idris Rana. “We are optimistic to have the dam filed by its maximum capacity of 1,550ft by August’s end.”

According to him, Mangla’s storage won’t be more than 1,170ft-1,180ft of maximum capacity (1,242ft) in days to come. Going by Irsa’s estimations, its storage should have stood at 1,210ft (80 per cent of capacity) but it had 1,098.35ft storage by June 30. He adds Irsa did release water whatever possible for cotton sowing. “We don’t store water at the cost of irrigation water supplies. Only surpluses are stored,” he says.

Water availability could potentially undermine cotton production in Sindh which had recorded increased cotton acreage and production last year. The present water availability scenario is causing nightmares to otherwise euphoric cotton growers given last year’s gains in cotton.

“The issue is that even if growers cultivate cotton, substantially reduced flows will undermine the crop’s survival,” fears Mahmood Nawaz Shah, Sindh Abadgar Board (SAB) vice president. “I am optimistic that growers will be able to salvage their crop even though Kotri and Sukkur barrages keep reporting higher shortage figures,” he asserts, alluding to the never ending water scarcity.

Sindh produced 3.5 million bales — somewhat impressive when compared with the recent past — in the 2021-22 season against a target of 4.2m bales. The 93pc acreage target was achieved last year as sowing on 593,889ha was reported against the target of 640,000ha. In the 2020-21 season, only 1.8m bales were produced against the same production target.

Last year, 94pc of the paddy cultivation target of 800,000ha was achieved. The present situation doesn’t bode well for paddy sowing either. The much-anticipated rainfall — as predicted by the weather department in early July — could however rescue paddy growers.

Until June 30, an overall 49pc shortage persists in Sindh, affecting Balochistan as well. Balochistan, dependent on Sukkur and Guddu barrages for water availability, is bearing with a 25pc shortage at Guddu and 63.5pc at Sukkur.

A high-profile team of Balochistan’s elected National Assembly members along with Irsa’s chairman, provincial members and water ministry’s representative visited Sukkur barrage on June 18 following Balochistan’s complaint about required water flows from Sindh.

“I think climate change is strongly making its presence felt over the last three years,” concedes Mr Rana. He can’t help expressing surprise over river hydrology. Tarbela didn’t show such variation historically as flows normally dropped by 10-15pc, not 40-50pc being experienced currently.

“Temperature variation in catchment remains a curious case. From 32 degrees Celsius, it dropped to 16 degrees in a few days. Increased temperature triggers snow melting for better flows,” he adds. “Against usual supplies lasting for 70 days [ending around Sept 10 after starting around July], they have now been squeezed to 30-40 days, starting by July and closing by August’s end,” he says.

Irsa’s Advisory Committee would be meeting on July 4 (today) to review the water situation and the Water and Power Development Authority’s request for a 33-months closure of T-5 at Tarbela. Wapda plans to install a 1,400MW project there besides increasing the low level intake at T5 of the reservoir. Let’s see what the July 4 brainstorming session offers to water-scarce Sindh.

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