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LAHORE: Pakistan and India are drawing water from the Indus aquifer faster than the rate of water recharges back into the aquifer, leading to a lowering of the water table back to or below pre-colonial times.

This was disclosed by The State of Pakistan’s Agriculture Report 2023 jointly launched by the Pakistan Agricultural Coalition and Pakistan Business Council here on Thursday.

“Neither the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 with India nor Pakistan’s inter-provincial Water Accord of 1991 deal with the allocation of groundwater from the Indus aquifer. Both instruments should be upgraded to make them comprehensive,” stated the report.

The report stated that Pakistan has an estimated 200 million acre-feet of total renewable freshwater including groundwater sources and Pakistan withdraws over 70% of these freshwater resources each year which is among the highest among comparator countries in the world.

China and India both withdraw more water every year than Pakistan, but only 21% and 36% of their total freshwater resources, respectively.

“With an enormous proportion of water being withdrawn for Pakistan’s agriculture, water use efficiency in both irrigation and agriculture must be prioritized,” suggested the report.

According to details, modern irrigation in Pakistan started in the 1860s. Over the subsequent decades, substantial amounts of water seeped through the canals and added to the Indus aquifer.

Over time, the groundwater table rose from over fifty feet below the ground surface to ten feet below the surface causing issues of water logging and salinity in the 1960s.

These issues were addressed through the Salinity Control and Reclamation Project (SCARP) which introduced over 12,000 public drainage tube wells to control the groundwater table and release the freshwater back into the canal system.

This was an ingenious way to draw water out of the Indus aquifer while putting it to good use. The program succeeded in reclaiming waterlogged lands and simultaneously increased the water supply which improved cropping intensity.

In the 1970s, performance issues of the public wells and increasing operational costs forced the program to transition towards subsidizing the installation of private tube wells for farmers.

There was already growing interest from farmers who wanted continuous access to the very shallow aquifer at that time. This sent the pendulum swinging far in the other direction leading to a rise in the number of tube wells in Pakistan from 30,000 in the late 1960s to over 1.2 million in 2020.

Today, the report mentions, Pakistan is the world’s fourth largest user of groundwater and meets nearly half of the irrigation requirement with groundwater.

“Nearly 90% of the tube wells are in Punjab due to lower salinity and relatively higher water quality. Most of Sindh has saline groundwater which means that any water that flows into the aquifer is lost forever,” stated the report.

Canal tail users are caught in a feedback loop of increased reliance on groundwater when canal water is insufficient but also are farming in the reaches of the aquifer that are least fed by seepage. And increasing fuel and energy prices have also increased operational costs, straining the farmers’ ability to withdraw needed water.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023


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