Piped irrigation to check Indus waters dispute

Politicians and Islamic outfits in Pakistan accuse India of stealing upstream Indus system waters, threatening Pakistan’s very existence. More sober Pakistanis complain that numerous new Indian projects on the Jhelum and Chenab will create substantial live storage even in run-of-the-river hydel dams. This will enable India to drastically reduce flows to Pakistan during the crucial sowing season, something that actually happened for a couple of days when the Baglihar reservoir was filled by India after dam completion.

India accuses Pakistan of hysteria, saying there is really no issue since India has always observed the Indus Waters Treaty dividing the waters of the Indus and Punjab rivers between the two countries. Pakistan may suffer from water scarcity but so does India.

Inter-state fights over water are humungous—Punjab vs Haryana, Karnataka Vs Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh vs Maharashtra. Water raises passions, and farmers in all states claim they are being robbed of water, without going into the rather complex facts. Pakistan is no different, say Indian experts, so let’s shrug aside Pakistani rhetoric.

What this debate misses is that dam-based canal irrigation is an obsolete, wasteful 19th century technology that cannot meet 21st century needs.  It must be replaced by sprinkler and drip irrigation, distributed through pressurised plastic pipes. This approach has enabled Israel to irrigate the desert. It can enable India and Pakistan to triple irrigated area with existing water resources, escaping water scarcity.

Drip and sprinkler irrigation are expensive. They use a lot of power for pumping. But they greatly improve yields too. Israeli agriculture is highly competitive.

Canals are hugely wasteful of both land and water, something well captured in Tushaar Shah’s book “Taming the Anarchy.” Up to 7% of the command area of a conventional irrigation project is taken up by canals, and this no longer makes sense when land is worth lakhs per acre. In the Narmada command area, farmers have refused to give up their land to build distributaries from the main Narmada canal, so only a small portion of the irrigation potential is actually used today.

Traditionally, South Asian farmers have leveled their land and flooded it with irrigation water. Rice is typically grown in standing water. This entails enormous water losses through evaporation in canals and flooded fields. This mattered little in the 19th century when land and water were relatively abundant. It matters hugely today. Piped water greatly economises the use of both land and water.

Instead  of canals, we can transport water through underground pipes that leave the land above free for cultivation. Indeed, the downhill flow of water through massive pipes can run turbines, generating electricity for pumping the water to the surface where required.

Canal systems make farmers prisoners of the water releases decided by canal headquarters. If canal water is released to a village section say once a month, farmers can grow only those crops suited to this irrigation schedule. This was acceptable in the 19ty century when farms were large and grew the same crop, and technology and markets for unconventional crops were scarce.

But today farmers want to diversify into a wide diversity of crops, and for this they need water on demand. This is why they have gone in a huge way for tubewell irrigation. This gives them water on demand, enabling them grow what they like. India’s green revolution was based overwhelmingly on tubewell rrigation: the Bhakra Dam contributed hardly anything to it, save that Bhakra canal waters leaked into the ground and helped recharge underground acquifers. The same was true of the green revolution in Pakistan too.

This does not cease to make water an emotive issue. Punjab and Haryana fight bitterly over canal water although 80% of their irrigation is based on tubewells. Punjab has refused to let the Sutlej-Yamuna Link be completed. Yet not even this has saved the state from water scarcity, since excessive tubewell pumping is emptying acquifers. The same thing is happening in Punjab.

Gujarat has shown the way out of this water crisis.  It has gone in a big way for drip and sprinkler irrigation. It has been rewarded with an astounding agricultural growth rate of 9% despite being a semi-arid state. Jain Irrigation has become one of the biggest producers of drip and sprinkler equipment in the world, and other corporate rivals are coming up fast.

Like Gujarat, India and Pakistan need to replace canal-based irrigation with pipe-based irrigation. India has world-class technology and equipment that it can share with Pakistan. Such co-operation cannot end controversies over Indus water sharing. But it can take the sting out of them.

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