BALOCHISTAN’S water challenge continues to grow. The province has four agro-climatic zones: the coast, desert, plains and upland. The uplands are further divided into three regions based on altitude, where climatic conditions, water availability and cropping systems differ. Rainfall in the province increases with altitude, allowing upland farmers to grow high-value crops.
As per provincial irrigation department data from 2016, upland Balochistan (ie, Pishin, Loralai, Killa Abdullah, Killa Saifullah and Ziarat) has 114 dams with a total storage capacity of 30,372 acre feet. Studies have found a correlation between this and a high groundwater table in the area, as the dams regenerate groundwater levels in the form of kareze and wells. But the rapid rise in population growth in the province has also led to an increase in the demand for water. A plethora of literature confirms that the water table is a significant component of eliminating poverty and sustaining livelihoods.
Balochistan has been facing groundwater stress for decades as levels continue to decline due to decreasing rainfall, increasing temperatures, prolonged droughts and a growing number of tube wells (from 29,914 in 2001-02 to 42,497 in 2013-14). In the uplands, the main source of irrigation is groundwater. According to the provincial agriculture department, across Balochistan in 2015-16, 552,435 hectares were cultivated by canals; 434,324 by tube wells; 74,981 by kareze, springs and others; and 53,887 by wells.
Groundwater depletion in the province is threatening livelihoods.
Agriculture and livestock predominantly fuel Balochistan’s economy, together accounting for almost 52 per cent of provincial GDP and providing employment to 67pc of its labour force, with 80pc of its population depending directly or indirectly on agriculture. Therefore, livelihoods in Balochistan rely heavily on agriculture, which in turn depends on the health of its groundwater.
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But most of the tube wells that farmers rely on for irrigation are drying, and Balochistan’s Provincial Disaster Management Authority reports severe drought conditions in 29 out of 32 districts. According to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, 30 out of 32 districts of Balochistan are food insecure; only Quetta and Jaffarabad are food secure. The declining water levels and drought conditions are adversely affecting the people in the uplands, as the dying kareze system forces women to struggle to find new sustainable livelihood activities, while the men leave their drought-affected orchards to work as labourers in urban areas.
The major source of livelihood in Loralai, for example, is pomegranates and vegetables, which are mainly irrigated by dug wells and tube wells. But a 2010 study shows that 95pc of groundwater sources in the district have dried, forcing people to migrate. According to UNDP, the drought has put about 60-70pc of Balochistan’s population at direct or indirect risk. Moderate drought conditions in districts Pishin, Killa Abdullah, Mastung, Kalat and Loralai have a dire socioeconomic impact, which includes but is not limited to lost livelihoods, reduced incomes, high unemployment, forced sale of household assets and land, forced migration, increased crime rates, malnutrition and decreased health conditions.
The ADB finds that water scarcity in Balochistan in the near future will be further stressed by growing populations, rising urbanisation along with increasing agricultural production. As such, the use of groundwater must be reviewed, and an appropriate and rational determination of potential policies forwarded. Efficient and sustainable use of water requires that certain measures be applied in both urban and rural areas. Such steps will help conserve the water table for end users, improve their living standards and boost the region’s prosperity.
Tube wells should be reduced in areas where the groundwater has sunk to critical levels. Water conservation techniques such as trickle/drip sprinkle, bubble irrigation, etc should be adopted. Farmers can be convinced via awareness campaigns to rely less on water-intensive crops and more on drought-tolerant crops, together with short duration crops or quick maturing crops. Livelihood needs to be diversified by introducing drought-resistant livestock species and breeds, along with improving rangeland management. The construction of dams in proper areas to store more water may reduce the rate of groundwater depletion.
Additionally, the provincial government needs to adopt better checks and balances by establishing regular groundwater monitoring network. The formation of a committee for water resources management, planning and development is direly needed. Excessive use of water in stressed areas needs to be curtailed through price mechanisms on water and electricity. For end users, awareness must be raised about maintaining the water table through the conservative use of water.
Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2018