In an interview with BR Research, Hasan Abbas – a leading voice on heterodox solutions to water crisis - noted that the root cause of disproportionate consumption of water by agriculture lay in colonial era laws.
Colonial era abiana laws, Hasan argues, were designed to extract maximum production out of designated agro-climatic zones to meet empire’s food and cash crop demands. Thus, if landholders engaged in water theft to increase production, British commercial interest lay in looking the other way, making sure these less-than-conscientious farmers stayed on empire’s side.
So the British made sure that water theft was not criminalized, but instead defined as ‘misappropriation’, penalized by payment of small fine.
The aftershocks of these perverse incentives are still experienced by Pakistan’s irrigation system. Water sector stakeholders – from both public and development sector – agree that ‘system losses’ are highest in arable areas closest to canal heads. That’s not only because of the dated canal infrastructure which exacerbates seepage, but also due to undocumented sub-canals withdrawing water out from the heads.
The obvious and universally agreed outcome of such ‘misappropriation’ is that landlords closest to heads are able to extract maximum yield out of their land despite intensive cropping (two to three seasons), tail-enders receive little to no irrigation surface water whatsoever.
From here, expert opinions and indicators from official data began to vary. Agriculture Statistics of Pakistan yearbook, for example, shows that the highest number of tubewells are owned by small- and mid- sized farmers, indicating groundwater abstraction is highest by small-sized landholders near the tail-end.
Intuitively, this makes sense considering that in absence of sufficient canal water, tail-end landowners have no choice but to excavate maximum groundwater for his use.
Experts, however, disagree. Hasan Abbas believes that groundwater abstraction by intensity may be highest in arable lands near canal heads, since seepage from canal is also highest in those regions, whereas tail-enders instead to rely on poor quality groundwater, due to poor recharge.
Danish Mustafa, a renowned UK based water sector specialist goes a step further. He argues that since unabated groundwater abstraction is done by large-scale landlords, the simplest solution to rationalize water consumption by agriculture sector is to penalize use of tubewells altogether. His proposal? To remove subsidy on tubewell tariffs altogether, making inefficient water use costly.
Except, that solution is tad too perfect. Until recently, most tubewells have been diesel dependent, thanks to long spates of power shortages in rural areas. And according to Ali T. Sheikh, recently retired CEO of Lead Pakistan - a development sector think tank, rural economy is currently undergoing a “solarization of tubewells” due to one-time investment and comparably high cost of diesel fuel.
Hasan Abbas also cautiously agrees with the latter view, but adds an important caveat. While near-universal consensus exists that unabated abstraction using tubewells and turbines is most destructive to health of underground aquifer, penalizing tubewells will go little in the way of reducing inefficient water use.
Instead, he believes that inefficient irrigation practices exist at head- and tail ends irrespective of landholding size and location. In his view, reducing tubewell use will go a long way in reducing theft, but in absence of a revolution in farming practices, will only takeaway water from tail-enders unless the lacunas in laws governing canal water theft and misappropriation are also addressed.
Water pricing is an emotive subject, and thus changes to water governance require a holistic approach and appreciation for nuance, which appears to be missing from the discourse. But hard to blame water stakeholders from development side when the public sector continues to stay obsessed with dam building.