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The Indus’ Eastern Rivers: Food Security, Water Use Efficiency and Ecology

By: J. Catherine

Following the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, India was granted exclusive usage of the three “eastern tributaries” of the Indus River, namely the Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi Rivers. In India, these rivers flow through the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh with a mean annual flow of 33 million acre-feet (MAF). Whereas, waters of the three “western rivers”- the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum- with a mean annual flow of 80 MAF was allotted to Pakistan. It can be argued that during the negotiation process the question of food security led to this skewed arrangement. At the time of partition, the plain region of the basin situated mostly in Punjab had extensive canal system built by the British which were dependent on the eastern tributaries. After partition most of the existing canal network became a part of Pakistan’s Punjab region.

To ensure irrigation development in Indian part of Punjab, the Indian government started investing in the development of canal network and live storage. This effectively meant taking away water from the downstream canals of Pakistan. Arguing prior appropriation rights, Pakistan protested against Indian canal plans. Then, during the World Bank mediated negotiations for Indus waters treaty, India put forth a proposal to give away the riparian rights to western rivers in exchange for exclusive rights on eastern rivers.

Eastern rivers have mainly contributed to the development of irrigation in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Punjab has been playing a vital role in the food security of India. Punjab constitutes 1.5 per cent of geographical area occupying 5.03 mha. Punjab’s agro climatic zone falls under the trans-Gangetic Plains which is rich in water and soil resources and has comparatively high land productivity level. The annual rainfall in the plains of Punjab varies between 330 – 1190 mm. The region has both rice and wheat-based cropping system with poultry farming. Buffalo and cattle are reared as primary means of livelihood. Punjab delivers 65% of the wheat and 42% of the rice to the central pool. Cropping intensity has increased from 133 percent in 1971 to 186 percent in 2005, thanks to the expansion of irrigation facilities and the increased speed with which agriculturally based tasks are completed. The net irrigated area of Punjab accounts for 95% of the total cropped area. Canal irrigation systems in Punjab comprise of Sirhind Canal system, Bist Doab Canal system, Bhakra Main Line (BML) Canal System, Upper Bari Doab Canal system, Kashmir Canal, Ferozepur Feeder/Sirhind Feeder system, Eastern Canal system, Makhu Canal System, Shahnehar Canal system and the Kandi Canal system. The Rajasthan Feeder and Bikaner Canal which carry Ravi-Beas & Sutlej water exclusively for Rajasthan also run in a considerable length over Punjab Territory. Dams such as Bakhra Nangal, Pong and Ranjit Sagar provide the required water to the canals.  India has constructed live storage works of about 13.6 MAF to harness the waters of the Eastern Rivers fully – Bhakra (5.83 MAF), Pandoh (0.015 MAF), Pong (5.91 MAF), Ranjit Sagar (1.9 MAF) [6]

Punjab can be divided into three water zones namely Shiwalik/North –East zone having 19 percent of State’s geographical area, Central zone with 47 percent and South- Western zone with 34 percent. The Shiwalik zone is vulnerable to soil erosion, flash floods, and a high-water table, among other things. The Central Zone is experiencing major ground water depletion (declining at the rate of 0.5 m per year) and pollution, while the South-Western Zone is experiencing poor ground water quality due to salinity and alkalinity, as well as tail end canal water insufficiency.

“While groundwater is declining alarmingly in fresh water regions, it has risen steadily in saline groundwater regions in Muktsar, Bhatinda and Faridkot districts. The region irrigated with Sirihind canal (150 years old) is experiencing extreme instances of water logging and soil salinity problems. “

It is unable to take its full discharge and it requires major rehabilitation and rejuvenation works (R&R). The net area irrigated by canals has fallen from 55 percent in 1960-61 to 28 percent in 2006-07. This is due to the system’s lower carrying capacity and decreased availability of surface water.

Punjab has been allocated 14.54 MAF out of a total average availability of 34.34 MAF. Its available ground water resources are estimated at about 17.37 MAF. Therefore, the total available water resources are 31.91 MAF against an estimated demand of 50 MAF, showing a deficit of 38 percent for a major riparian State.  Only 28 percent of the total area is irrigated by surface water or canals and rest 72 percent area is irrigated by tube-wells and wells. The number of tube wells has increased from 0.19 million in 1971 to 1.17 million in 2005. Widespread rural electrification coupled with a flat-fee electricity subsidy that has led to a dramatic increase in the number of tube-wells, groundwater-based irrigation now far surpasses surface water use. Out of 138 blocks of the state, 103 blocks are “over exploited”, 5 blocks are “critical”, 4 blocks are “semi-critical”.

“At 145% stage of development, Punjab’s groundwater scenario is bleak. Continuous Growth in population, sowing of water intensive and high yielding cash crops and also expansion of economic activities has led to increasing demand of water. The artificial recharge of groundwater is being initiated by government bodies. Canals are being repaired but the progress has been slow. “

These Indus Basin Rivers are perennial in nature and are dependent on springs and snowmelt for their flow. As a result of global climate change, the loss in glacier mass and area will affect the contribution of melt runoff to various reservoirs. For the Bhakra reservoir, the contribution from glacier melt is predicted to initially increase, peaking at around 2050, and will reduce thereafter. As compared to when the treaty was signed, knowledge body regarding the biophysical and socio-economic impacts of human activities on rivers has drastically changed.

“Concepts such as environmental flow and biodiversity conservation were relatively nascent at the time and therefore were not dealt with during the negotiations. The ecological impacts of intensive agriculture with mono cropping and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, groundwater overuse, soil pollution etc. also needs to be addressed. “

Replacing the area under rice with low water requiring crops like pulses/maize etc., through crop diversification will be beneficial for long term sustainability and secure farmer livelihood.

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About The Author

J. Catherine

Catherine is performing her research on Indus Water River system at Maritime Research Centre, Pune.