Aijaz A. Qureshi is an educationist and development professional. His experience spans over forty years in education research, community development, participatory development, social mobilization, and environmental management.
A law graduate by training, he went on to receive MSc in economics from University of London. He served as a professor of development economics for over 25 years, while also serving as Director, Sindh Development Studies Centre.
Later, he went on to head several public-sector development organizations such as National Rural Support Program (NRSP); Sindh Rural Support Organization (SRSO); Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority (SIDA); and Sindh Rural Support Program (SRSP). He has also been a Visiting Fellow at Wye College, University of London.
In his current assignment at Sindh Water Sector Improvement Project (WSIP), Professor Qureshi is serving in a technical advisory role. He is also the author of 15 books on development, economy, and history, including his most recent work titled ‘The Economy of Modern Sindh’, co-authored with Dr. Ishrat Husain and Nadeem Hussain.
BR Research spoke with Professor Qureshi as part of its on-going coverage of Pakistan’s water sector, given his breadth of knowledge and expertise of Sindh’s water economy, specially irrigation. Following are the edited excerpts:
BR Research: Let’s start with a discussion of your current assignment at Sindh Irrigation & Development Authority. It is claimed that Sindh took the lead role in first of its kind participatory irrigation model in the country.
Aijaz A. Qureshi: Back in 1997, Sindh founded country’s first Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) model under Sindh Water Management Ordinance (later assented into an Act) which was later followed up by similar initiatives in other provinces. Called National Drainage Program (NDP) at the time, the project had initially focused on drainage of highly saline waters from canal irrigation system.
Due to its restrictive mandate, NDP proved to be of limited success, and was succeeded by Water Sector Improvement Project (WSIP) in the form that you see it today. Although irrigation department is the relevant line ministry, the project receives its mandate from Sindh Planning & Development.
BRR: What does participatory irrigation model entails?
AAQ: The three major barrages in the province have independent Area Water Boards (AWB) for each canal emanating from the barrage. AWBs are responsible to sell canal water to farmers/landholders. As these boards lack enough manpower or resources to deal with each landholder separately, local-level organizations are required to transact with all growers in any region collectively.
To this end, over three hundred and fifty Farmer Organizations (FOs) were formed under WSIP for landholders based in three major canal command areas of the province: Ghotki Feeder, Nara Canal, and Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) – one each from Guddu, Sukkur, and Kotri barrages.
FOs are the basic building block of WSIP. Each distributary flowing out of a main canal may have tens of water courses. Farmers on each distributary come together to form an FO, which in turn collects abiana from all landholders along the distributary/watercourses.
The FO model has been tremendously successful. After deducting a nominal percentage for FO’s administrative expenses, the abiana is paid to the Area Water Board, as a payment against canal water received in each season.
BRR: What is the indicator of success for FO-based participatory irrigation management model?
AAQ: The abiana collected from distributaries in the province managed by FOs is far higher than from those where participatory irrigation model has not been introduced. Moreover, since the funds retained by FOs are also used for building makeshift lining of watercourses, the extent of system losses is also comparably lower.
BRR: If participatory irrigation under WSIP has been such a success over the past 12 years, why has it remained limited to the three feeder canals and not extended to the remainder 11 canal command regions of the province?
AAQ: A combination of lack of interest shown by political governments, coupled with lack of funding has contributed to lack of WSIP’s expansion. Since its outset, WSIP received substantive support and funding from World Bank, which was instrumental in construction and operationalization of FO offices.
BRR: It has been reported that Rs18 billion have been allocated by federal government for Sindh in the recently announced National Agriculture Emergency Program, which has laid special emphasis on canal and watercourses lining. However, Sindh government has not shown any interest. Is this impression correct?
AAQ: The politics over the issue is merely a distraction. Reality on ground is that disbursement of funds and entitlements already agreed and approved from the federal government is also very slow. In that context, the Rs18 billion allocated under National Agriculture Emergency Program is spread over a period of four years and is based on 50-50 cost-sharing by the province.
BRR: Granted that the federal government at present is cash-strapped and in a fiscal-stabilization mode. But unless irrigation infrastructure projects are agreed upon in principle, what use is financing? As you pointed out, provincial government has shown scant interest in expanding WSIP despite its success.
AAQ: The agriculture and irrigation sector need major innovation and the policy focus needs to be geared in that direction. That is true not only for the provincial but also for federal government, which has also lacked interest in focusing on agriculture sector’s development.
For example, I had long advocated establishment of Export Processing Zones for agri-products with Hyderabad city as its hub. The five adjoining districts are very high in productivity of vegetables and fruits, as hundreds of orchards are located in the region. Similarly, an EPZ could be established for oilseeds and dates in northern region of the province.
However, no funds were allocated for an agri-oriented EPZ by subsequent governments, despite repeated proposals. While provincial governments have to shoulder blame for not pursuing high value proposals more aggressively, note that EPZs come under the federal government’s Ministry of Commerce. Unless funds are allocated (and also timely released) for ground-breaking proposals - with federal and provincial departments working in sync - mere announcements won’t suffice.
BRR: What percentage of annual O&M costs of provincial irrigation system are fulfilled by abiana collected?
AAQ: While I do not have official numbers, off the cuff estimates suggest that no more than 15-20 percent of O&M cost is fulfilled by abiana collection, whereas rest is contributed by provincial irrigation department which also receives funding and support from World Bank.
BRR: Let’s now shift focus to provincial water economy. Some water sector specialists insist that the spectre of shortage is a red herring, and available water resources are sufficient to meet requirements of all sectors of the economy. Do you agree?
AAQ: While it may be correct that if used productively and efficiently, water currently received by the province would prove sufficient to meet requirement of a growing population. However, this conclusion misses the point that the share of water currently received is less than that was agreed in the IRSA Water Accords.
First, system losses between Punjab and amount received at Mithankot and Guddu barrage in Sindh indicate that ‘misappropriation’ along the courses is very high.
Moreover, confusing inefficient consumption practices with unjust distribution is misleading in a major way. In times of lower availability due to periodic drought years, rampant system losses mean that more water is ‘misappropriated’ in violation of the Water Accord. Thus, losses to agricultural output of lower riparian regions such as Sindh are exacerbated, as water volume received is even lower than the pro rata entitlement (out of available) under agreed formula.
BRR: What is the extent of variation between Sindh’s share agreed in IRSA accords and water received on average?
AAQ: Water received in the canal system is 15-20 percent less than agreed share on average.
BRR: One water sector expert in a conversation with BR Research noted that annual environmental flows to delta are at least 30MAF on average and yet are insufficient. Yet public sector specialists argue that environmental flows requirement to stop seawater intrusion is no more than 10MAF water and cite Kotri barrage studies as evidence. What is your view?
AAQ: The 30MAF figure appears wide off the mark, and IUCN reports may be referred on the subject to gain an authoritative view. Environmental flows received are less than 10MAF on average. Within next ten years, over one-third area of Badin and Thatta districts may disappear due to seawater intrusion. That should tell you whether the environmental flows received are sufficient or not.
BRR: Interestingly, those who argue that environmental flows are close to 30MAF are also against dam building and insist that seawater intrusion is not caused due to poor flows alone but also due to disturbance of natural cycles of low- and high-flows, which will worsen if more dams are built. What is your view?
AAQ: Seasonality of natural flows is relevant but is not the only problem. Absolute volume of environmental flows received is even more crucial, because unless environmental flows are received in adequate volume, seawater would not recede or be pushed back. Environmental flows received currently do not even meet the bare minimum benchmark of 10MAF. Unless this is ensured, construction of new dams/reservoirs will remain contentious.
BRR: Would you agree with the view that Sindh’s water woes are endogenous to a large degree? Meaning that instances of water-stress in southern parts is more due to system losses in Guddu barrage command area and not due to water theft in upper Indus basin/Punjab.
AAQ: This view is not entirely devoid of truth. While system losses in Punjab are a huge bane, they are in not the only challenge. Large landholders in Sindh have also constructed illegal direct outlets (DOs) that abstract water directly out of distributaries and minors all over the province. Water theft by large landholders is rarely penalized and is reflective of the elite capture of provincial economy, regardless of which political party may be in power.
Having said that, water theft and impunity enjoyed in this respect is an administrative challenge. Sindh’s agreed share in water resources is a binding accord under an Act of parliament. The fact that province has rarely received its promised is a more grievous problem, even if for symbolic reasons.