Seeking a fair share of water
AS in years past, Sindh’s farmers are finding themselves facing water shortages during the summer crops’ season.
Until the first week of July, the command areas of the Kotri barrage — the last water-controlling point on the River Indus — were experiencing a 50 per cent shortage. Over the past decade or so, water shortages during the Kharif season have become the rule rather than the exception for the province. This year, farmers were unable to plant rice until the end of June, although the Kharif season begins on April 15.
Farmers bodies in Sindh demand that instead of being stored in reservoirs, water should be given to the province when it is needed. At the root of matters is the trust deficit regarding inter-provincial water distribution between Sindh and Punjab. The former wants water in March and April but the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) stores it in Mangla Dam on the grounds that it will be required to meet Punjab’s requirements during the Rabi season. Sindh’s farmers argue that water should be stored only if it is available in surplus — dams should not be filled when downstream areas are facing acute water shortages.
As a result of this system, though, Punjab’s farmers are sowing their early Kharif crops now, a trend that has been set in the past decade. Punjab’s rice reaches the market before Sindh’s crops are ready for harvest.
This is borne out by the president of the Sindh Abadgar Board, Abdul Majeed Nizamani, who says that over the past decade Punjab has been cultivating its Kharif crop early. “In 2000, I saw the rice crop in Punjab at the flowering stage in August, while in Sindh even the transplantation of rice had not taken place,” he observed. “All the provinces have equal rights but Sindh is not supplied water from Mangla Dam; the storage policy seems to benefit Punjab alone.”
Insofar as the construction of dams on the River Indus is concerned, the fears of Sindh’s farmers are not unfounded. Given that they are not getting water during the Kharif season even now, how can they expect fair treatment if there’s another reservoir upstream?
Sindh questions the operation of the Chashma-Jhelum (CJ) and Taunsa-Panjnad link canals. Although they are supposed to be made operational only after the requirements of the provinces have been met, they are given water from time to time.
During a meeting held on July 17, Irsa decided through a Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa majority vote that the waters of the River Indus would be diverted into the Chenab zone through the CJ link canal and Sindh’s supply would be cut by about 5,000 cusecs. During the month, the CJ link canal has already been given 6,000 cusecs of water to transfer water to the Trimmu headworks, which is actually the command area of the eastern-side tributary. Before that, in May, the CJ link canal was given 2,000 cusecs of water for the Greater Thal Canal.
The CJ link canal drew a serious reaction from the Sindh government when it was opened in 2009. The province believes that the course, which is supposed to be operated only during floods, is becoming a perennial canal. Sindh’s farmers complain that on the one hand, Punjab fills up Mangla Dam against its needs during the Rabi season, and on the other transfers water from the River Indus to southern Punjab. Yet Sindh is denied water from Mangla Dam during the Kharif season.
This amounts to the non-implementation of the Water Accord 1991. Sindh’s farmers feel that when there is a shortage, Punjab demands water along the formula of the historical usage of water by provinces (water usage between 1977 and 1982), which favours Punjab. When water is in surplus, the province raises no objection over the implementation of the 1991 accord.
The filling up of Mangla Dam during months when lower riparian Sindh needs the water is a serious bone of contention between the provinces. It is for this reason that the filling criterion of Mangla Dam was made one of the terms of reference for the Technical Committee on Water Resources formed by Gen Musharraf in 2005. Headed by A.N.G. Abbasi, the committee discussed the guiding principles for the operational criteria of Mangla Dam. It came out that although the reservoir was built nearly four decades ago, no comprehensive operational criteria had been laid down. The chairman of the forum stated that it was “very important that clear and specific filling criteria for the Mangla reservoir should be laid down” because the “proper operation of this reservoir will help remove the apprehensions of the lower riparian provinces for the construction of new reservoirs”.
The committee regretted the fact that water is stored in Mangla even during periods of shortage, and wasted in times of surplus. Moreover, it was observed that the stored water is not fully utilised in subsequent Rabi seasons.
The committee proposed four guiding principles, one of which is that “if adequate stored water is available in Mangla, it should be provided to lower riparian provinces in early Kharif (April-May) when the river flows of Indus main are not enough for their minimum requirements.” It adds that “no water should be stored in Mangla reservoir until the indents of the four provinces based on their Water Accord allocations are fully met.”
It is high time that these principles were followed in letter and in spirit. Failing that, the lower riparian region will be justified in resenting the upper riparian areas in terms of the water issue.
The writer is a member of staff.