Large tracts of desert in Cholistan, Kharan and Thar land lay barren in Pakistan today. Can some parts of these deserts be made to bloom given the worsening water crisis in the country with per capita water availability approaching 900 cubic meters? How does Pakistan improve long term food security for its growing population? The answer to both lies in efficient water management through effective drip irrigation.
What is Drip Irrigation:
Drip irrigation is a micro-irrigation system using tubing that saves water and nutrients by allowing water to drip slowly into the roots of plants, either from above the soil surface or buried below the surface. It puts water directly into the roots and minimizes evaporation.
Water mixed with fertilizer is carried out through tubes which release a small amounts of water per minute directly to the roots of each plant. Precision watering cuts evaporation, run off, and waste.
More Crop Per Drop:
Agriculture uses over 90% of all available fresh water in Pakistan. "More crop per drop" program focuses on improving water use efficiency by promoting drip and sprinkler irrigation in agriculture in Pakistan.
The Punjab government started this effort with the World Bank with $250 million investment. The World Bank is now providing additional $130 million financing for the Punjab Irrigated Agriculture Productivity Improvement Program Phase-I.
The project is the Punjab Government's initiative called High-Efficiency Irrigation Systems (HEIS) to more than doubles the efficiency of water use. Under the project, drip irrigation systems have been installed on about 26,000 acres, and 5,000 laser leveling units have been provided. The additional financing will ensure completion of 120,000 acres with ponds in saline areas and for rainwater harvesting, and filtration systems for drinking water where possible, according to the World Bank.
Cost of Drip Irrigation System:
Most crops are not irrigated with the drip method due to higher costs. In the United States and Spain, where the technology is used most, it comprises 6.75 and 2.75 percent of the total irrigated area, respectively, according to the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage. Farmers are offered subsidies to encourage the use of drip irrigation in most countries as a way of conserving precious water.
Subsidies in Punjab, Pakistan:
Punjab provincial government is subsidizing up to 60% of the cost of installing new drip irrigation systems, according to Business Recorder newspaper. Director General Agriculture (Water Management) Malik Muhammad Akram said that latest irrigation techniques ensure availability of water and fertilizer in time to the plants and it also ensure uniform supply of these two major ingredients to all the plants in a field. It helps attaining more per acre yield with minimum agricultural inputs, he added, according to the paper.
There's at least one example of public-private partnership to promote drip irrigation in Sheikhupura near Lahore. The installation has been carried out by Nestlé Pakistan in collaboration with the Government of Punjab, covering 40% and 60% of the farmer’s cost respectively. The Agricultural Efficiency Project was initiated in the year 2017 and has so far covered 109 acres of land in 2018 with an estimated 280 million liters of water saved, according to a Nestle press release.
Using drip irrigation, farmers can save up to 95% of water and reduce fertilizer use, compared to surface irrigation, according to Malik Mohammad Akram. In flood irrigation – the traditional method of agriculture in the region – a farmer uses 412,000 liters per acre, while using drip irrigation the same land can be irrigated with just 232,000 liters of water, he explained to Zofeen Ibrahim of The Third Pole that covers Asia's water crisis.
Writing for The Third Pole, Zofeen Ebrahim has cited a couple of success stories of farmers receiving Punjab government's drip irrigation subsidies: The stories of ex IT Engineer Hasan Abdullah and Infiniti Agro and Livestock Farm.
Hasan Abdulla is has planted an orchard on his 40-acre plot in Cholistan Desert. He has orange, lemon olive trees which are now fruiting three years after planting. He is among the first farmers experimenting with drip irrigation.While Abdullah was saving water, the cost of diesel for running water pump was proving astronomical. It would have been difficult for Abdullah to continue farming with drip irrigation had the government not announced an 80% subsidy on solar power plants for farmers in 2018. He promptly took it up.
Asif Riaz Taj, who manages Infiniti Agro and Livestock Farm in Bahawalpur, heard of Abdulla's drip irrigation project and paid him a visit. He like it and decided to follow the example. Now in their fourth year, the Infiniti orchards have started fruiting over 70 acres. But it will not be before its sixth year, Taj said, that they will “break even”. The drip irrigation and solar plant was installed at a cost of PKR 25 million (USD 174,000), and the monthly running cost of this farm is almost PKR 4 million (USD 28,000).
Pakistan faces a severe water crisis that threatens the nation's long term food security. The country needs to expand area under cultivation while efficiently managing its precious water resources. It needs to make parts of its deserts bloom. The best way to do it efficient water management through effective drip irrigation. Such projects are expensive to implement. The Punjab government is offering up to 60% subsidy to farmers to encourage wider use of drip irrigation.