A farmer works in a field in Mirpurkhas | Umair Rajput
A farmer works in a field in Mirpurkhas | Umair Rajput

Khuda Bux is restlessly pacing through his fields on a muggy April morning. A peasant in his sixties from Jhuddo town in Mirpurkhas district, over 110 kilometres south-east of Hyderabad city, he is worried about his cotton crop. It has started germinating and needs to be irrigated but he is not getting any canal water.

Time is running out. He takes the only option he has: using the saline water of a nearby drain. “I am trying to provide some moisture to the crop so that it survives,” Bux explains the reason for his choice.

His landlord, Aslam Kaimkhani, recently borrowed money and commissioned a tube well to draw water from the drain to irrigate 10 acres Bux has planted cotton on. But saline water can destroy the crop. He has to be very cautious, making sure water does not touch the saplings as it flows through the furrows.

Bux is so frustrated with the effort required to keep his crop alive that he would quit farming altogether if he could. “I cannot find a job as a daily-wage labourer. Neither can I find firewood to cut and sell to make ends meet,” he says. He has no option to earn his livelihood but by growing crops.

His fields are part of a farm located at the tail end of a watercourse originating from Basran-II minor which gets irrigation water from Rohri Canal. In recent years, the watercourse has rarely had water, if at all.

Kaimkhani, owner of the farm, alleges the water shortage is artificial. It is caused by irrigation department officials who give preferential access to water to either influential landowners or to those who bribe them, he says. As a result, he says, landowners at the tail end suffer.

To overcome the shortage, Pir Bux Hashmani, owner of another farm in Jhuddo, has set up his own pumping station that lifts water from Puran Dhoro, a rainwater drain. Sometimes, he pumps water from another drain that carries effluents from Mirpurkhas city.

A villager fetching groundwater in Mirpurkhas| Umair Rajput
A villager fetching groundwater in Mirpurkhas| Umair Rajput

These effluents are hazardous for crops and soil fertility, explains Dr Ahsan Siddiqui, a Hyderabad-based water technologist who is also the convener of a committee formed under Supreme Court’s orders to minimise pollution at Manchar Lake, Asia’s largest freshwater reservoir.

He has assessed a sample of effluents collected from the drain that irrigates Bux’s fields and advises against using it, citing abnormal amounts of contaminants in it. The value of total dissolved solids (TDS) in the sample, according to him, was recorded at 10,270 milligrammes per litre whereas, as per the Sindh Environmental Quality Standards, it should be less than 3,500 milligrammes per litre.

Sadori Solangi, a middle-aged woman in Jamal Dahiri village of Matiari district, approximately 50 kilometres north of Hyderabad, wakes up when she hears the call to morning prayer. She goes to her four-acre farm just behind her house to see if water from a canal has arrived in her watercourse. It is mid-April and she is already running behind schedule to sow her cotton crop. Water is nowhere in sight.

Solangi does not have the money to install a tube well to pump out groundwater — as the richer and bigger landowners in her area usually do. Her best bet is to purchase water from one of them. “I am thinking of selling a goat to arrange money for purchasing water from a neighbouring farmer.”

Habibullah, a farmer from Jhandi Mari village in Tando Allahyar district, is also worried about his cotton crop. He is using groundwater pumped from a tube well but he thinks it is not healthy for his crop. “Had canal water been available, I would have been providing fertiliser to my crop by now but, instead, I am still waiting for seeds to germinate,” he says. He fears that late maturing of his crop will lessen his yield.

Farmers all over Sindh face shortage of irrigation water – just as Sadori and Habibullah do – every summer.

The province’s irrigation system is dependent on canals that originate from Kotri, Sukkur and Guddu barrages on River Indus. These canals are divided into two main parts. One passes through areas to the east of the river or its left bank; the other consists of canals and watercourses running to the west of the river or its right bank.

A farmer sows cotton seeds at a farm in Tando Allahyar | Umair Rajput
A farmer sows cotton seeds at a farm in Tando Allahyar | Umair Rajput

The part on the left bank, consisting of the 356-kilometre Nara Canal and 330-kilometre Rohri Canal, gets priority in drawing water from the barrages because it irrigates a much bigger area than that irrigated by the canals on the right bank.

According to the irrigation department’s estimates, Nara and Rohri canals together irrigate approximately 5.3 million acres of land (in Ghotki, Sukkur, Khairpur, Nawabshah, Naushahro Feroze, Matiari, Umerkot, Tando Allahyar, Mirpurkhas, Badin and Sanghar districts).

These days, they do not get all the water they should under the Water Apportionment Accord signed by the four provincial governments and the federal government in 1991. Reason: the federal authorities are being injudicious in releasing or blocking the river water.

The Indus River System Authority (Irsa), that regulates interprovincial water distribution, decided to continue drawing water from Tarbela Dam on the Indus in the months of January and February this year for hydroelectricity production, says Dr Syed Nadeem Qamar, president of the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture and the brother of Pakistan Peoples Party leader Syed Naveed Qamar.

That is why the water storage level at the dam on March 11, 2017, stood at 1,380.56 feet — the so-called ‘dead level’ where Irsa stops further discharge of water into the river. That level persisted till March 23 when it started rising — a trend that lasted about six weeks. But then it dipped again on May 7: water was at 1,388 feet that day.

When the water level was relatively high in the month of April, Irsa started withdrawing water from the Indus through Chashma-Jhelum Link Canal to facilitate farmers in Punjab, says Qamar. These developments both take place in the upper parts of the Indus and together explain why “the period between April and June is marred by chronic [shortage] of irrigation water in Sindh”. And then there is mismanagement and corruption in the handling of irrigation water.

Officials of the irrigation department often connive with politically influential landowners to skew the distribution of irrigation water. For example, cultivation of water-intensive crops like rice is prohibited in the left bank areas under West Pakistan Rice (Restriction on Cultivation) Ordinance 1959 but officials at the agriculture department report that the crop is widely cultivated in Khairpur, Naushahro Feroze, Ghotki, Nawabshah, Sanghar and Mirpurkhas districts. “We do not reflect acreage under rice cultivation in our records,” says one of them, “but it [happens] every season.”

Sugarcane and banana crops, like rice, require more water per acre than other crops do. They should not exist in the left bank districts of Tando Allahyar, Mirpurkhas and Badin as per law but they do.

“[The presence of] banana orchards and sugarcane fields ... is not possible [in these areas] unless landowners get unusually high and uninterrupted water flows,” says Khalid Hyder Memon, a former irrigation department secretary.

Influential landowners get these flows through direct outlets (DO) from canals. They use their connections to obtain the DOs that are allowed only under special permission from the chief minister.

To process the permission, the irrigation department is required to minutely document the irrigation needs of a landowner who applies for a DO, says a former managing director of the Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority. “But the documentation process is [carried out] without any objective assessment of the implications that a DO will have on the rights of downstream users,” he says.

Farmers pump out saline water from a drain | Umair Rajput
Farmers pump out saline water from a drain | Umair Rajput

Chief ministers in successive governments – both civil and military-led – have liberally exercised their authority to grant permission for DOs. As a result, hundreds of DOs exist across Sindh, mainly in the areas irrigated by Nara and Rohri canals.

A list of 65 DOs just in one canal division was brought to the notice of the Supreme Court while it was hearing a case on irrigation water shortage back in 2013. A cursory glance at the list suggests that the approved size of all those DOs was altered so as to draw more water than sanctioned.

The final draft of a report, titled Sindh Water Resources Development and Management Investment Programme and prepared in August 2009 collectively by Sindh’s Department of Irrigation and Power and the Asian Development Bank, mentions a survey of 107 DOs that were drawing 382 per cent more water than they were allowed to draw. One DO was drawing over 30 times of its approved quantity.

Sindh government somehow did not give an official approval to the draft report, says Fayaz Hussain Shah Rashdi, president of the Sindh Abadgar Tanzeem — an association of growers, who has a copy of it.

Getting rid of a DO seems impossible. “During [Pervez] Musharraf’s regime, approval for 100 to 150 DOs was cancelled through an ordinance. The landowners [whose lands those DOs irrigated] moved the Sindh High Court which ruled that their old water supply sources be restored before the cancellation of the DOs,” recalls former irrigation department secretary Idris Rajput. “But those old sources, interestingly, were either closed down or did not altogether exist,” he says. “So the DOs could not be cancelled.”

This was originally published in the Herald's July 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.