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Watercourses lining, a popular activity  
By Zafar Samdani

The project for the lining of 86,000 watercourses in the country over a period of four years at a cost of 66 billion rupees is a major initiative that should strengthen the agriculture sector in a significant way. It is however not a new move because it is already a part of the farming sector.

According to Dr. M. Shafique, a leading water sector expert of Pakistan who has worked on a number of international projects too, "watercourses' lining is not a new activity; it is around us since the mid seventies.

By any standards, it is still the most popular programme in the rural areas because its benefits are direct and accessible to small and large farmers without any discrimination".

Pakistan has a total of about 140,000 watercourses. Roughly one third of them have been lined over the years. The main work has been done in Punjab under the On Farm Water Management wing of the provincial Department of Agriculture.

But the lining was carried out mostly under foreign aided projects. The indigenous nature of the present initiative is a positive and heartening development. Using local resources and involving beneficiaries is essential for long-term impact of any project, particularly in the farming sector.

Under the present programme, the watercourses that were not brick-lined in the past are to be taken up. While the previous work has helped sustain agriculture activity in a period of water shortage, it is generally seen as geared towards privileged and influential members of the sector while the focus this time is to be on the farming sector in general irrespective of the size of land holding or status of the owner of land.

A major aspect of the project is attention to tail end farmers who are left high and dry by feudal element and politically resourceful landowners. As the programme is aimed at covering the entire field, it may be said that it contains no room for discriminatory treatment.

This should be welcomed by small farmers, poor and tail-enders who form about two thirds of the farming community and are in fact the very backbone of Pakistan's agriculture.

Farmers have a direct stake and responsibility because they would be managing and funding part of the brick lining project themselves. They would make about 14 billion rupees contribution in term of labour while they would hold the purse for payments through Water Users Associations or Khal Panchayats. They would be acting as contractors on behalf of the government that would underwrite the remaining expenses.

There has been criticism of the project from departments managing public works, officials who specialize in pilferage, contractors and feudal elements too. The vested financial interest has been hit by the outlined manner of implementation of the project while big landowners oppose it because it has removal of inequity as an ingredient.

Equity is not a popular concept with landed aristocracy of Pakistan, not that wealthy urbanites practice or even accept the idea. District governments would be implementing the project that would be financed by the federal government to the tune of 52 billion rupees.

Monitoring would be by a third party that should ensure that work is carried out as planned. From the look of things, a conscious effort has been made to plug most of the possible holes.

Considering everything, a few gaping holes may still confront the effort. Filling them would require political will and smooth and unbiased functioning of the system of local governments.

Involvement of district governments would accord farmers direct say in the process and give them a role in its implementation. It would also generate economic activity in rural areas as brick making would receive impetus, unskilled labor would find work near their homes and skilled masons would be in demand.

The cement industry should also be a beneficiary. That makes the project not only vital to the agriculture sector but also an important job generating activity for the rural sector.

In view of the fact that brick lining has continued in Punjab for the past few years, the province has an edge over the rest of the country. Consequently, the number of watercourses on the list of lining, remodeling and other changes is 31,000 while Sindh has 29, 000 watercourses identified for the project.

The 13,000 channels of Balochistan and 10,000 of NWFP would be taken up by the project while watercourses in Azad Kashmir would also be brick-lined. According to Dr. Shafique, the lining project is not a favour to farmers but it should be taken as a belated attempt at remedying a situation that should have been addressed a long time back.

It makes sense to have watercourses lined to make sure that the costly water stored upstream, in the old and new reservoirs, is not wasted on the downstream side. Another aspect of the situation is that brick lining carried out once is not for ever.

It lasts for a period of 25 years at the maximum, suggesting that it should be a continuous activity. Many of the watercourses improved in the past may already have reached the stage where they require attention again.

As such, it is important that the concept is given an institutionalized basis and farmer's role is accorded due importance so that cleaning and maintenance of the channels is regularly carried out.

While the project looks the right prescription for the water shortage ills of the country, it should not detract from the fact that no measure for harnessing existing water resources can be a replacement for new reservoirs and augmenting availability of water.

They are not a requirement to be ignored, whatever steps may be taken to improve the situation. One apprehension of some sections may not be misplaced. While water losses in channels must be minimized, it should be ensured that seepage is not altogether blocked because that play a part in recharging the aquifer.

With the increased use of tube wells, particularly in the Punjab province, it is essential that underground resources are not totally exhausted and there is provision for recharging them. 

Courtesy:The DAWN;

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