At the southern end of Pakistan’s Sindh-Balochistan border near the Kirthar mountain range, Sindh’s Kachho desert has witnessed an unprecedented surge in the use of solar-powered tubewells for groundwater extraction in agriculture.
The rise in the number of tubewells powered by solar energy as compared to grid-provided electricity or diesel is linked with the acute power shortage in the country as well as high costs of fuel. While there is no doubt that these solar tubewells have improved agriculture in this drought-hit desert, their mass installation has caused serious environmental hazards. But despite these challenges, the absence of legislation for groundwater control and the lack of a mechanism to store rainwater means that these tubewells continue to be installed at a rapid pace – and the environmental threat worsens.
Rainwater slips away
One major factor behind the excessive groundwater extraction in Kachho is the incomplete construction of the Nai Gaj Dam, which has been designed to provide rainwater storage to Kachho and surrounding areas.
Despite the short-term relief brought on by heavy rains in the 2019 monsoon, farmers in Kachho are likely to continue extracting groundwater in the next farming season starting December, as the rainwater of the Kirthar mountains catchment areas cannot be stored in the incomplete Nai Gaj Dam.
This year, Pakistan received higher rainfall than average. “From January 1 to October 14, Pakistan saw 377 millimetres rains, which means that so far we have got more than 23% higher than normal rain,” said Muhammad Riaz, Director General of the Pakistan Meteorological Department.
Following the rains, farmers in Johi – the largest agricultural village of the Kachho Desert – enjoyed a fulfilling cultivation period. Rains in the catchment areas of the Kirthar mountain range caused the flowing of streams in full swing to the Kachho. The rain provided water for drinking, agriculture and also to recharge aquifers.
“The rains have allowed an additional 150,000 acres of cultivation. But we are well aware that this jubilation is short-lived. For the next crop which is three months later, we will have no water as the streams will stop flowing by then,” Mashooque Birhamani, the Chief Executive Officer of the Sujag Sansar Organisation, told thethirdpole.net.
In 2012, the government started the construction of the Nai Gaj Dam, an earth core rockfill embankment dam located on the edge of the Kirthar range near Dadu’s Kachho desert. The plan was to store 0.3 million acre feet (MAF) of rainwater from the Kirthar catchment area and also irrigate 28,000 acres, thus reducing water shortage.
So far, 51 percent of the project has been completed. In August this year, a committee of Pakistan’s upper legislative house Senate revealed that due to differences on payment between the provincial Sindh government and the federal government, the estimated construction cost of the Nai Gaj Dam is now three times higher than the original projection of PKR 16.9 billion (USD 108 million). The committee also told the House that the matter is now subjudice and that the Supreme Court’s decision is awaited.
“Completion of the Nai Gaj Dam can reduce pressure on groundwater extraction,” said Muhammad Munir Babar, a professor at the US-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water (USPCAS-W) at the Mehran University of Engineering and Technology (MUET).
Babar, who hails from the Kachho area, added, “Overall, due to climate change, the rain has become scarce in Kachho. No steps have been taken to recharge the aquifer whenever the rains do come. So Kachho is left vulnerable.”
Surge in tubewells
Prior to the introduction of low cost solar powered tubewells in Kachho two years earlier, traditional tubewells operating on electricity and diesel were used in the area – albeit in a smaller quantity.
With reliable solar technology available at a lower cost, the region has witnessed a sharp increase in tubewells. The latest estimates by the Sujag Sansar Organisation, a local non-governmental organisation working in Kachho on water, says the number of tubewells has surged from less than 1,000 to over 5,000 in just two years.
“On an average, everyday there are three new tubewells are being installed in the area – all solar. Even the existing tubewells are being converted to solar technology,” Birhamani added.
Kachho stands well above the national average of tubewell installations, taking its area and population into account. The national average stands at one tubewell for 217 people for every 79 hectares. In Kachho, there is one tubewell for every 50 persons for 48 hectares.
In the past, prolonged droughts meant no vegetation and an acute water shortage for both humans and livestock in Kachho. Joblessness in the area resulted in a high level of poverty and destitution.
The mass installation of tubewells here has breathed new life into Kachho when it comes to economic prosperity. The expanded agriculture in the area has brought radical changes in inhabitants’ lifestyles. There is a sharp decline in migration and an increase in livelihood options.
“Increased availability of groundwater means that migration has almost been suspended. Now, the only people who migrate are those who cannot afford tubewells,” said Birhamani.
But while the economic and agricultural activities in Kachho have resumed with a new zeal, the large scale groundwater extraction has brought serious environmental hazards.
According to Babar, the groundwater table has fallen drastically.
“The gravity of the situation can be gauged by the fact that the aquifer level has gone down drastically within the passage of two years – after the installation of solar powered tubewells. In western Kachho, which is nearer to the hill torrents, water is shallow. However, the water level in eastern Kachho is 450 feet. Two years back, it was somewhere between 60 to 70 feet,” he added.
In just the second year of the mass tubewell installation, the groundwater has become saline.
Since there is no regulation of the extraction of groundwater and locals are largely unaware of the limits of aquifers, pumping continues unabated and can lead to the elimination of groundwater altogether, Birhamani warned.
Babar added that no Kachho-specific environmental study has been conducted to calculate the effects of excessive groundwater usage.
He referred to Pakistan’s National Water Policy (NWP), which says that groundwater was depleting and its quality was deteriorating in the country.
“In general, the document refers to the overmining and pollution of aquifers that results in salinisation and the presence of fluorides and arsenic in water, which in turn degrade the quality of agricultural lands. Due to excessive extraction, Kachho is prone to depleting the aquifers. The area is already under-reported. If the government wants to improve the water situation and the level of poverty, a study is vital,” Babar said.
A bleak future
Kachho’s increasing dependence on groundwater depicts the country’s overall situation, as aquifer extraction is the only reliable resource that provides resilience against droughts and climate change impacts.
Pakistan, which is currently at the ‘water stressed’ level, is likely to touch ‘water scarcity’ levels by 2025. The agriculture sector is Pakistan’s backbone, and to fulfill its 60% irrigation needs from groundwater, the country has become the fourth largest groundwater extractor in the world.
According to the NWP, Pakistan is extracting more than 50 MAF from the aquifers and has already crossed the sustainable limit of safe yield.
According to a document compiled by the Pakistan Academy of Sciences (PAS), the introduction of solar technology in groundwater extraction has boosted the number of tubewells in the country so much that the number has gone from 0.2 million to 1.2 million in two-and-half decades.
The NWP, which is Pakistan’s first ever consensus document signed by all administrative units, provides guidelines on water scarcity related issues and has stressed upon legislation for uncontrolled groundwater extraction.
In its guidelines, the NWP has asked provinces to establish groundwater authorities to ensure sustainability, transparency, efficiency, safety and affordability.
However, so far, Sindh has not been able to act upon the NWP’s recommendations.
Rasheed Channa, spokesperson of the Chief Minister of Sindh, acknowledged the delay and said that the formation of the province’s groundwater authority is “in process”.
“I cannot announce any date. However, I can tell you that the relevant departments – including law, public health engineering and others – are working on it,” he said, adding that the government is aware of the importance of such a body.