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Supporting the ‘Big Unknown’: Spate irrigation in Pakistan

Display Date: 12/5/11

This article was originally published in the APR Newsletter ‘Making a Difference in Asia and the Pacific’, Issue 40, in December 2011.
Authors: Karim Nawaz, Frank van Steenbergen and Rudolph Cleveringa

Desert truffles, which fetch very high prices and are found in many areas of the country

Spate irrigation in Pakistan has excellent potential to contribute to poverty alleviation and rural growth but is also largely unknown and not well understood. It is practiced in the area west of the Indus in all four provinces of Pakistan. The Pakistan Spate Irrigation Network, funded by an IFAD grant, aims to promote improvements in spate irrigation, capitalizing on good practices developed in various parts of Pakistan and other countries.

Spate irrigation is called nai in Sindh, sailaba in Balochistan and rod kohi in Khyber Pakhtoonkwa and Punjab. In the system, water from flash floods is diverted to irrigate land and fill drinking water ponds, water rangelands and forest ranges. Traditionally water is diverted from open channels close to the foothills or (further down in the plains) with the help of earthen diversion bunds built across the dry river beds.

These structures are usually built in such a way that they wash out when there are very high floods. This acts as a safety net – and prevents potentially destructive very high floods from destroying the land. However, smaller-sized floods, which are easier to manage, are diverted to the land. Once diverted, the flood water is spread and guided gently over sometimes very long distances. Spate irrigation is often practiced ahead of the planting season. It depends on when the floods come. Hence soil moisture conservation is very important as there is a time-lag between the timing of watering and seeding. Another special feature of spate irrigation is the management of sediment. As the sediment carried by spate flows may be as high as 10 per cent, spate irrigation is as much about managing water as it is about managing sedimentation.

The current spate-irrigated area in Pakistan is estimated at 0.34 million hectares dry years and 1.28 million hectares in wet years, and a maximum developed command area of 2.02 million hectares. The area is substantial – representing up to 10 per cent of the country’s irrigated land – but there are opportunities to expand – for the cultivation of crops such as oilseeds and pulses. Moreover, where the groundwater in these spate-irrigated areas can be used at the same time, high-value horticulture is possible.

Earthen bunds, which are sometimes several kilometres long and 20-30 metres high

Developing spate irrigation will improve national food security as well as livelihoods in some of the poorest and most unsettled areas in the country. Although spate irrigation is practiced in up to 10 per cent of the country’s irrigated areas, and has been for centuries, this technique is largely unknown – in policy and in education.

The Pakistan Spate Irrigation Network (PSpN) – part of the international spate irrigation network – aims to turns this around and promote on-the-ground improvements in spate irrigation by drawing from good practices developed in other parts of Pakistan and in other countries. It will also work on introducing spate irrigation in education and in policy. The network has received funding under the IFAD grant ‘Spate Irrigation for Rural Growth and Poverty Alleviation’, which is administered by UNESCO-Institute for Water Education and MetaMeta (a private development research company). The grant also covers Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen. Grant activities in Pakistan began in 2011 are also expected to be supported by a World Bank grant in early 2012.

The PSpN is jointly run by Strengthening Participatory Organizations and the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council. Both organizations have field offices in spate-irrigated areas and also have a tradition of working with other organizations. At present the Network is identifying focal persons in each of the Provinces.

In 2011 the PSpN undertook the following activities:

  • Initiated discussion on developing the 15,000 hectare command area of the Sanghar Irrigation system and addressing associated water rights and land tenure issues
  • Continued discussion with donors on replenishing the stock of earth-moving equipment, which has been an invaluable asset for farmers to expand and improve their spate irrigation systems
  • Drafted a book ‘The Dry Side of the Indus’ to be published by Vanguard for broad dissemination
  • Prepared several ‘practical notes’ in English on topics including engineering, command areas work, main crops and storage; they have also been translated in Urdu
  • Initiated a research project with the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council on the cultivation of desert truffle mushrooms – a potentially high-value commodity in the spate areas that was previously unknown
  • Prepared a package of 12 lectures by leading experts on different aspects of spate irrigation (ranging from sedimentation to water rights); these will be introduced in different university programmes.
  • Emphaszing spate irrigation in policy documents

In 2012, the network will focus on the field level – encouraging local innovations and improvements with farmers groups as well as catalysing main activities with other organizations.

Karim Nawaz, Frank van Steenbergen, MetaMeta, Spate Irrigation Network and Rudolph Cleveringa, Technical Adviser, IFAD

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