Feb 15, 2009

Local solutions to global problems

The Chairman of the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change), Dr Rajendra Kumar Pachauri was in Pakistan last week — he was invited to a regional conference on climate change held in Islamabad. According to the Nobel laureate (he won the peace prize along with Al Gore last year), Pakistan faced a potential environmental catastrophe as a result of climate change. In his words: “Water supply, already a serious concern in many parts of the country, will decline dramatically, affecting food production. Export industries such as fisheries will also be affected, while coastal areas risk being inundated, flooding the homes of millions of people living in low-lying areas.”What a dire prediction — as if we did not have enough problems already! Already, climate change has caused precipitation in the country to decrease 10 to 15 per cent in the coastal belt and hyper arid plains over the last 40 years, while there has been an increase in summer and winter rains in northern Pakistan. “Although most societies have a long history of adapting to the impacts of weather and climate, climate change as we are experiencing it today poses new risks that will require new investments in adaptive responses,” Dr Pachauri warned.Adaptive responses must surely include tried and tested indigenous methods (that have evolved over centuries) in a country that is largely dependent on agriculture for its well being. I did a report recently on spate irrigation, which is completely dependent on floodwater that comes from seasonal rains. Few people in the country are aware that the spate irrigation system in Pakistan is the second largest system after the Indus Basin irrigated agricultural system, proving food and livelihoods to millions of people — often the poorest of the poor.Spate irrigation is in fact, an ancient form of water management that is unique to semi-arid environments. It dates back to the Mehergarh civilisation, which archaeologists now claim could be as old as 9,000 years, and whose remains have been found in Balochistan province. Mehergarh, which is located near the Bolan Pass near the vast Kacchi plains, pre-dates the civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The French archaeologists who have been digging there for a few years now, have discovered evidence of the first domestication of animals and cereal cultivation. In the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Punjab, the first spate irrigation systems were developed in 330 BCE.So what exactly is spate? In Pakistan, it is referred to as Rod Kohi, with Rod meaning torrent bed and Koh meaning mountain. Rod Kohi is a system of irrigation in which the water from flash floods from the mountains is diverted from the streams with the use of dams and embankments and used for irrigating fields located in the foot hill plains. It serves local farming systems, rangelands as well as the drinking water supply — either directly or through the recharge of shallow aquifers.On one of my trips to interior Sindh, I was lucky enough to arrive soon after heavy rains had hit the province, breaking several years of drought. The spate areas near the Kirthar Mountain Range were covered with vegetation — shrubs, grass, small trees and of course the newly sown crop fields. It was a wonderful sight — arid hills and plains, usually dusty and brown, now coloured in with green and yellow hues. Mostly subsistence crops like Sorghum, millet, wheat and vegetables like Moong Beans, cucumbers and pumpkins are grown in these spate areas. All those melons that you find in bazaars from April/May onwards are grown mostly in spate areas.Perhaps the best thing that I discovered about crops grown in spate is that they are mostly organic. They are grown from one or more irrigations using residual moisture stored in the deep alluvial soils formed from the sediments deposited from previous irrigations (the floodwater brings with it heavy silt from the mountains). Hence the crops grown are organic, and don’t require inputs like fertilisers and pesticides. They are of a higher nutritional value and are less susceptible to disease.The spate irrigation system in Pakistan has enormous potential. According to conservative estimates, a significant amount (more than 50 per cent) of flood water is allowed to escape and flow into the Indus River each year. Of the remaining flood water, however, more than two-thirds is wasted and not properly used for irrigation. With proper technological inputs (like flood gates, reservoirs, embankments etc), more can be done to improve the livelihoods of the communities living in the Rod Kohi areas.At the policy level, the Rod Kohi system should be encouraged since it is low cost, environmentally sustainable and people friendly. It gives sustenance to the poorest of the poor and allows free grazing for livestock. Many kinds of medicinal plants, wild vegetables and mushrooms are found in spate areas which have potential cash value if marketed properly. Spate areas are environmentally friendly and sustain various kinds of endangered wildlife like cranes, flamingos and houbara bustards.With rainfall becoming more erratic and less water supply in our rivers, we clearly need to invest in this indigenous method of irrigation which is sustainable in the long run. Given our rich history, we need to further explore our heritage for past solutions which can be adapted with better technology today. By Rina Saeed Khan/Daily Dawn Lahore

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