Muhammad Ishaq Bhatti owns 32 acres of farmland. In most parts of Pakistan, this landholding would be sufficient to afford its owner a decent lifestyle. But not in the water-starved Badin district where he lives with his family in poverty.
The reason for his plight is that canals in his area have no water to allow any cultivation. “Water courses in my village have dried up,” says 68-year-old Bhatti. He has not cultivated even a single acre of his land for the last two years. Earlier, when he could still sow some crops, his yield would be so low that his input costs always exceeded his earnings. He now makes ends meet by working as a daily wage manual labourer.
Farmers and landowners in four out of five talukas – or tehsils – of Badin district have the same complaint. These talukas receive river water for irrigation via two canals — Akram Canal, which flows throughout the year, and Phuleli Canal, that flows only during the sowing seasons for main cash crops such as sugarcane and wheat. The water from these canals now fails to reach vast tracts of farmland in Badin, Tando Bago, Golarchi and Talhar talukas.
Settlers from other provinces who own farmland in these talukas also have not escaped the effects of water shortage. Muhammad Ilyas Ghumman, a settler who owns 160 acres of land and heads an organisation of local farmers, says he has received no yield from his fields in the 2018-19 crop cycle. His produce was only 10 per cent of the normal in 2017-18 and was only a little higher – at 40 per cent of the normal – in 2016-17.
Ghumman alleges water supply has been dwindling since 2008 mainly because landowners upstream steal water from the canals, leaving little of it to flow below Badin’s Matli taluka. Even below Matli, he claims, some water is still being stolen. Those involved in this stealing, according to him, are politically influential people belonging to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) that rules Sindh province. “This is why the irrigation department fails to take action against them,” he says. Another settler, Abu Rasheed, who is a retired army brigadier and owns 113 acres of land, also cries foul. “My entire land is lying barren since 2018 because canal water is being stolen before it reaches where my farm is,” he says.
The district administration acknowledges that water theft is a big issue. Badin’s deputy commissioner Hafeez Ahmed Siyal says that he is aware of the problem and that the local officials of the irrigation department have been doing what they could to put an end to it. “They have removed more than 200 illegal pipes recently,” he says.
Phuleli Canal and Akram Canal emanate from Kotri Barrage on the Indus river and are, respectively, supposed to irrigate one million acres and 0.5 million acres of land throughout Badin district. “In the 2018-19 crop season, cultivation could be done on just 10 per cent of this land,” claims Mir Noor.
Ahmed Talpur, a PPP member of the district council. The land cultivated during crop cycles in the last couple of years was also only 25 per cent of the total, he says.
Water shortage is so severe in hundreds of villages along the tail ends of the two canals that it has left their residents with no opportunities to earn a livelihood within their own settlements. Their animals, too, are falling sick and dying due to the absence of water and fodder.
Water is also not available for human consumption. Local groundwater is unfit for drinking due to its high mineral content and canal water, which the villagers would use for all their domestic and irrigation needs, is no longer flowing in irrigation channels close to them. Those who have motorcycles travel for many kilometres until they find water and fill it in jerry cans to take back home.
This situation has forced a large, though unspecified, number of villagers to migrate to other parts of the province. Several villages in three coastal union councils of Badin taluka – which lie at the end of the canal system – have emptied out. In many other villages in the same area, only a few residents have been left behind. According to Riaz Buhar, a district council member associated with PPP, 25 to 30 per cent population of the three union councils has already migrated.
Khuda Bakhsh Mandhro, a 75-year-old landowner, is among those who are still staying put. He has not been able to cultivate his 300 acres of land for 14 months but he does not intend to leave his village. “I own some big and small animals and I am able to bear my expenses by selling them,” he says.
The price he is getting for his animals, though, is half as much as he would get in normal circumstances and his lone source of income is also threatened due to the unavailability of water. Over the last year or so, three of his cows and 12 of his goats have died.
If some local landowners and political activists are to be believed, Badin has been losing its share of canal water for quite some time. The canals flowing into the district first experienced a reduced water supply in the 1970s when some of their water was diverted to irrigate regions north of Badin (which generally receive canal water from Sukkur Barrage that is upstream from Kotri Barrage), they say.
“In 1977 and even afterwards, landowners from the areas irrigated by canals originating from Sukkur Barrage connived with the irrigation department and had channels excavated to divert water from Phuleli Canal,” says district council member Talpur. The areas that benefited from this diversion include Badin’s Matli taluka and its neighbouring district of Tando Muhammad Khan, he claims.
Syed Zafar Ali Shah, a local landowner who is also a retired employee of the irrigation department, makes a similar claim. The whole of Matli taluka, according to him, used to receive irrigation water from the canals that started from Sukkur Barrage but now 175,000 acres of the taluka’s farmland is getting water from Akram Canal, he says.
These assertions find little echo in Karachi, the provincial headquarters.
Idris Rajput, a renowned irrigation expert and a former secretary of Sindh’s irrigation department who lives in the city, does not find them convincing. According to him, no legal or constitutional provisions stop the irrigation department from directing or redirecting canal water as, when and where it wants. Water shortage, he says, is being caused by some other factor.
For many in Badin, that factor could be the government’s failure to stop landowners in upstream regions from stealing canal water — a problem that is as old as the canal system in the district. Echoing the settlers quoted earlier, many local landowners complain how illegally installed water suction pumps and pipelines in upstream disctricts have been used for withdrawing water from both Akram and Phuleli canals for decades — putting the four talukas downstream from Matli at a serious disadvantage.
Another factor frequently cited by Badin’s residents as a reason for the shortage of water is the irrigation department’s alleged failure to remove silt from irrigation channels. The silt, they say, has reduced the capacity of the canals to carry water to farmland. Phuleli Canal, according to a local journalist, Haroon Gopang, was 200 feet wide when it was constructed in 1955. Now, he says, its width has decreased to 130-150 feet due to silting as well as encroachment of its banks by growers.
All these factors, whether considered separately or together, are responsible only for a partial decrease in the canal water flow. They still do not explain how and why, over the last couple of years, irrigation channels in the four talukas have all but dried up.
Residents of the district, including many PPP associates, landowners, growers, traders, social workers, writers, poets and artists — all have started a series of protests since February 2019 against the shortage of canal water. Some former staff members of Sindh’s irrigation department, including some engineers, have joined the protesters too.
Local residents have formed a number of organisations – such as the Save Badin Action Committee – to organise protests and thereby press the provincial and the federal governments to ensure that they get their share of water. Businesses have been kept closed and marches have been carried out from one taluka to another. A protest gathering was also organised in Islamabad.
Unlike many others in the district, these protesters point out that the single most important factor behind the scarcity of water is the construction of three new water regulators on both Akram and Phuleli canals. These regulators, they complain, include crests – or raised stoppers – which have reduced the supply of water from the canals into irrigation channels that lead to farmlands.
The regulators have been built as part of a project funded by the World Bank and overseen by the Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority. Their construction started in 2016 but only one of them has become functional since then. The remaining two will start functioning later this year. The crests of all three, though, are already firmly in place. Various theories circulate in Badin about why the regulators and their crests have been built.
Local residents allege these have been built to benefit landowners in Matli taluka and Tando Muhammad Khan. This has been done, they allege, because a majority of the landowners in these two regions are well connected politically — with PPP as well as with some other political parties.
Local landowner Shah endorses these claims by saying that the crests have been built in such a way that they allow a high flow of water till Matli but leave little water in the canal system downstream from there. This, he says, is due to the fact that the crests are unusually high — the highest of them being as tall as two feet and 10 inches. Others are only a little lower; one of them is 1.75 feet high and two others are as high as 1.5 feet.
The protesters have been successful to the extent that the news media has given them extensive – though, according to them, belated – coverage and the provincial authorities have also agreed to hear them out. The government of Sindh, consequently, has formed a committee, headed by Rajput, to assess the impact of the regulators on the flow of canal water.
The committee has not started its work but Rajput says there has been no change for the worse in recent years as far as the discharge of water from Kotri Barrage into Akram and Phuleli canals is concerned. If anything, the discharge is “higher than the allocated quota of the two canals”.
He seems to agree with the residents of Badin when he says the crests could be the reason for a reduction in the flow of water to certain areas in the district. But he is cautious in making a final judgment call. “The exact situation will become clear after the committee inspects the regulators.”
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.
This article was published in the Herald's April 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.