Rapid groundwater depletion threatens Pakistan food security

PAKPATTAN (REUTERS) - Until recently, Ghulam Mustafa made a living growing sugarcane, rice, barley and wheat on his 10-acre farm in Punjab province.

But these days he is struggling. The water available in wells in the area is dwindling, and the cost of pumping it to his crops is rising. Like many other farmers in the area, Mustafa, 51, now plans to cultivate only half his land and leave the rest for his livestock.

"The groundwater level in our area has gone down around 15 to 20 feet in the last five to six years," he said.

"And unfortunately it continues to decline each year."

Across Punjab province and two districts of neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, groundwater supplies are depleting at 16cm to 55cm a year, according to a study carried out by the International Waterlogging and Salinity Research Institute (IWASRI), part of the Pakistani government's Water and Power Development Authority.

Efforts by farmers to find more water are only exacerbating the problem. Muhammad Saeed, director at IWASRI, said that 42 per cent of the land in Punjab is irrigated using wells and the excessive pumping of groundwater is quickly lowering the water table.

Mustafa, for instance, said he must deepen his well in Pakpattan district almost every year to get enough water for irrigation. The deeper his well gets, the harder his generator has to work to pump out the water - and that uses more diesel fuel.

The farmer's monthly fuel bill for his pump has increased from 5,000 rupees (S$66) to 7,000 rupees in just the last year.

"Pakistan lacks a water recharge system in the area, as we cannot get water from the Sutlej and Beas rivers under the Indus Water Treaty with India," Saeed said.

That water-sharing treaty, signed in 1960, divides the Indus River system equally between India and Pakistan, giving each country exclusive use of three of the river's tributaries.

"In the near future, farmers will no longer be able to grow water-intensive crops like sugarcane and rice," Saeed predicted.

According to the 2010 agricultural census carried out by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, almost 64 per cent of the country's population lives in rural areas and earns a living from agricultural activities such as crop cultivation, livestock rearing, and transportation of agricultural products to market.

At present, half of Pakistan's population is food insecure and if the current trend of water depletion continues in Punjab and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - two regions that are home to 80 per cent of Pakistan's farming population - food production and farming income will suffer, said Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, an independent non-profit organisation in Islamabad.

"The availability and accessibility of food may become difficult for over 60 per cent of the populace in the next 10 years if immediate steps aren't taken to recharge the aquifer," he said.

According to the IWASRI study, about 145 million acre-feet of water flows through Pakistan each year, but the country's existing storage capacity is only 14 million acre-feet, meaning it can only store enough water to last 30 days. The international standard is 120 days.

Improving water storage will be important. But Suleri believes another way to combat the growing water shortage is to teach farmers how to effectively irrigate crops with less water.

"The government should introduce water-efficient seed varieties in water-stressed areas and train farmers on using drip irrigation and sprinkle irrigation to save the scarce resource," he said.

Pakistan's wheat farmers have lost over 1.5 million tonnes of their crop this year due to erratic rainfall, hailstorms and water shortages, said Pervaiz Amir, country director for the Pakistan Water Partnership.

He suggests the government should work to artificially recharge groundwater in water-short areas by building structures to capture water during the flood season and hold it in place, allowing it to percolate into the soil.

Like Suleri of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Amir also believes the government needs to help show farmers how to more efficiently use limited water, to boost food production while protecting water sources.

"The government should regulate indiscriminate groundwater extraction by creating water (protection) zones and introducing water-saving technology in the agriculture sector to boost food security," he said.

For farmers like Mustafa in Pakpattan, solutions to Pakistan's shrinking water supply cannot come soon enough. He worries he will lose everything if levels of canal water and groundwater in the area keep decreasing.

"I fear that my whole farm may turn into a desert in next 10 years if the water scarcity continues at the same alarming pace," he said.