Water use efficiency in Pakistan

Water is considered to be the lifeblood for sustained national economic development in Pakistan and is becoming increasingly scarce natural resource, which was relatively abundant in the recent past.

Water use efficiency in Pakistan

Now, as in other areas of the world, population growth, economic development, rapid urbanization and industrialization are applying significant pressures on the water resources of Pakistan and it is becoming a country with water scarcity.

The growing imbalance between water supply and demand has already led to shortages, competition, rising pollution and other environmental pressures and is a key obstacle in continued economic development. Hence there is an urgent need to respond to these pressures.

To address the water scarcity issue, an effective balance is required to be created between developing new resources and managing the demand. The alternatives for developing new resources in Pakistan exist in all the three sources i.e. river flows (mostly from snow melt), rainfall and groundwater.

But, considerable financial resources coupled with latest state-of-the-art technologies are required for their development. Whereas there is greater scope for managing demand through increasing efficiency of available water resources, primarily through improving governance, but it requires strong political will and determined efforts for strengthening the present institutional capacity.

Water resources management and development in Pakistan faces immense challenges for resolving many diverse problems. The most critical of these is a very high temporal and spatial variation of water availability.

Nearly 81% of rivers flow and 65% of precipitation occurs during the three months of monsoon season, while quality of groundwater greatly varies with depth and location.

Ever expanding water needs for the growing economy and the population for meeting its food and fiber requirements, and the advent of frequent floods and droughts, add to the complexity of water management.

Secondly, intermittent and persistent pollution load from industrial and agricultural activities further deterioration the quality and efficiency of existing surface and ground water resources.

The sustainability of irrigated agriculture and its further expansion, is being threatened by a number of following factors:

  1. a) Water Scarcity
  2. Growing water need to meet basic requirements of growing population besides socioeconomic demands.
  1. Reduced availability of surface water, due to silting of dams.
  2. Very high variations, both in terms of space and time, in the availability of water resources.
  3. Over exploitation of groundwater resources, thus, rendering large areas out of reach of poor farmers and exhaustion of groundwater aquifers.
  1. Water logging and salinity in areas of various canal commands of Indus Basin System.
  2. b) Water Quality
  3. Pollution of aquifers due to lateral movement of saline water or upward movement of highly mineralized deep water.
  1. Lack of proper disposal of saline effluent.
  2. Contamination of river water due to untreated disposal of industrial effluents, domestic sewage and agricultural runoff contaminated with chemical fertilizer and pesticides.
  1. c) Water Management
  2. Frequent floods and droughts.
  3. Lack of inter-provincial consensus on water resources development strategy and mistrust among the provinces on equitable water distribution
  1. Lack of proper maintenance of the canal system and consequent unsatisfactory service.
  2. Lack of commitment among the various relevant organizations on the need for providing drainage network as a part and parcel of irrigation network.
  1. Inadequate participation of consumers.
  2. Proper pricing / valuation of water.

Most of these issues are related to the way governance of water resources is being carried out by the related institutions. Unfortunately, Pakistan has not been lucky in terms of good governance.

Institutional erosion, lack of accessibility, accountability and transparency, dismal state of law and economic exploitation has been the bane of our existence so far.

As a consequence the economy and society of Pakistan is challenged by the crisis of governance, which is termed as a major obstacle to the attainment of broader objectives of sustainable development.

The issue of governance has a variety of dimensions. The culture of good governance ensuring equity, transparency, accountability, efficient water and energy management, environment protection, socioeconomic well-being and above all long-term sustainability is needed to be integrated at all levels in the society specially in the water and power development sector.

This paper reviews the issues related to governance of water resources in Pakistan and suggests a number of options to improve the governance of water sector leading towards improving water use efficiency.

Water requirement in MAF:

Water use

Year 2001

Year 2025




Drinking and Sanitation












 The present average water availability is close to average requirements in the agriculture sector, although projected demand is expected to grow by more than 25%, as shown in Table 1.

Therefore, a general impression is prevalent is, a looming serious water scarcity in Pakistan. This needs to be viewed in terms of what could be done through an agro-economic approach to crop production that would seek to develop cropping systems, technologies and management approaches that are both consistent with emerging market demands.

For crops (e.g., oil seeds and horticulture crops) and at the same time offer considerable opportunities for more efficient use of water. While most of the investment and research focus have been directed to irrigated areas of Pakistan, it should also be emphasized that an enormous potential for productivity increase exists in rain-fed areas.

The Punjab Barani Tract for example, comprises a continuous area of about 18 million acres that is producing far below its potential (PWP, 2001); currently some 10 million acres are used for grazing, and only about 8 million acres are under cultivation.

Currently, only a small proportion of the surface run-off during the rainy season is harvested in dams and other mini-structures. But, again the agricultural development of such areas has followed an “engineering” approach.

Whereby the main focus of investment has been to extend irrigation and related crop technology to rain-fed areas, rather than to approach development through extension of rain-fed crop technology using water as supplementary irrigation. Therefore, the opportunity this offers to poor farmers for raising their incomes largely remains untapped


The climate of Pakistan is arid to sub tropical. The natural precipitation in the country is however, scanty and highly variable. Over half of the country receives less than 200 mm of annual rainfall, and rainfall in excess of 400 mm occurs.

Over only about 20 percent of the mountainous northern areas where rain-fed agriculture is practiced to some extent. The precipitation, apart from being low, is distributed quite unevenly over the seasons and, in a major part of the country, it is mostly during three to four months of the summer monsoon.

Against this low precipitation, the lake evaporation, which is an index of evapo-transpiration by the plants, ranges from 1800 mm to more than 2500 mm, annually.

Accordingly, agriculture production in Pakistan depends heavily on irrigation. Some 16.2 million hectares or 78 percent of the cultivated area of Pakistan (20.7 m ha) is irrigated, and produces 90% of the country’s agricultural output.

The large rain-fed area of Pakistan, covering some million hectares remains largely under developed, although considerable investment has been made in mini-dams and other forms of water harvesting infrastructure.

In many instances, water from these reservoirs is not used efficiently for reasons of lack of delivery systems, and inefficient use of water. Irrigation plays a vital role in agriculture of Pakistan, which in turn is the most important sector of the economy, contributing 25% to the GDP and accounting for 80% of the foreign exchange earnings.

Agriculture is otherwise important too, in a country’s scenario where the population is growing at a rate of over 3% per annum; it provides employment to 54% of the labour force with another 16% of the rural population dependent on activities related to it.


The irrigated area of Pakistan is about 78% of cultivated area and ranks second in the world after Egypt, that has almost 100% cultivated area under irrigation. China has 47%, India 35% and USA 11%.

The Indus river system in fact is the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world. The salient statistics of the four major countries with an aggregate area of 54% of total irrigated land in the world.


Irrigated area in million hectare

Percentage cultivated area

Irrigated area food production as percentage of total


















The performance of the irrigation sector has been unsatisfactory mainly due to inadequacies in operation and maintenance (O&M) of the key infrastructure, which is considered to be largely the result of lack of funding, and the deteriorating performance of water related institutions (GoP, 2002).

Funds allocated for O&M are generally insufficient and maintenance of drains is given the lowest priority. Because of the increasing share of staff and overhead costs in the overall O&M budgets, lesser funds are becoming available for actual maintenance and repair works.

The funding shortfall stems from the fact that Irrigation Service Fees (ISFs) are insufficient to meet O&M costs, requiring subsidies out of scarce provincial revenues. As the collected ISFs flow into the general revenue and O&M subsidy is not linked to system performance, Provincial Irrigation Departments (PIDs) have no incentive to improve the collection of fees and the systems’ operation.

Beneficiaries are generally reluctant to involve themselves in the O&M of project facilities or pay for their O&M as they perceive these facilities as public property.

In addition, water logging and salinity are affecting about one-third of over 16 million hectares (ha) of irrigated lands that supply more than 90 percent of Pakistan’s total agriculture produce.

The quality of surface water and groundwater resources is deteriorating with pollution load caused by chemical intensification in agriculture, urbanization, and industrialization


The intensive irrigation for agriculture through canal supplies could not keep pace with the increasing demand of water with growing population. Therefore, the pressure on land could not cater for the additional needs of food and fiber.

It suffers from infra structural, financial as well as administrative bottlenecks. Realizing the need for improvement, PIDA Acts were promulgated by the governments in all the provinces in 1997 to improve the irrigation and drainage systems.

Under this Act, the governments of each province will replace the existing administrative set up of PIDs by establishing Provincial Irrigation and Drainage Authorities (PIDAs), and under PIDAs creation of Area WaterBoards (AWBs) and Farmers’ Organizations (FOs).

This is being done to make the provincial irrigation and drainage operations efficient and sustainable on long-term basis.

8 Establishment of Provincial Irrigation and Drainage Authorities (PIDAs)

Irrigation and Drainage Authorities have been established under the PIDA Act, 1997 in all the provinces for streamlining the irrigation and drainage system, commonly known as PIDA in Punjab, SIDA in Sindh, FIDA in NWFP and BIDA in Balochistan.

There are six FO Members in PIDA, one in SIDA, four in BIDA and one in FIDA. The Departments of Planning and Development (P&D), Finance and Irrigation are represented in all. Secretary Agriculture is a Member in all except PIDA.

9 Establishment of pilot Area Water Boards (AWBs)

Five canal commands have been selected as pilot areas to see the working mechanism of AWBs. Two of these AWBs are in Punjab, and one each in Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan.

The idea of selecting few canal commands is to gain use of the experience from these pilot areas for other canal commands after necessary amendments.

The functions of an AWB include the followings:

  1. To formulate and implement policies with a view to achieve and continuously improve effective, economical and efficient utilization of irrigation water at its disposal and to ensure that within a period not exceeding 7 to 10 years from the date of its constitution, it becomes fully operative as a self-supporting and financially self-sustaining entity.
  1. To plan, design, construct, operate and maintain the irrigation, drainage and flood contro infrastructures located within its territorial jurisdiction.
  1. To adopt and implement policies aimed at promoting formation, growth and development of Farmers Organizations including pilot projects for FOs and faithful monitoring of the results
  1. The lowest tier for implementation of various provisions of the Act is the Farmers Organizations (FOs) representing the farmers at distributary/ minor level. The number of FOs represented inAWBs varies amongst the provinces.

The Agriculture Department is represented in the AWB of all provinces except Punjab, like PIDA. There is a government’s representative in all AWBs.

Water Management and Finance have their representation in all the three AWBs constituted so far. Out of the eight FO’s representatives in PIDA, three are to be from the tail reaches of the distributary/minor. No such provision has been made in other

Authors: Jaffar Iqbal   M.Sc.(hons) agronomy     

Faizan Anjum PhD (agronomy) , M Bilal younas  Msc (hons) agronomy   

Ahmad Mehmood Msc (hons)agronomy

By Jaffar Iqbal

Welcome! I am passionate about Agriculture and food security, Graduated in Agriculture. I love to work in the field of Agronomy and sustainable farming.