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Water storage efforts reverse migration in Pakistan

by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 19 November 2012 16:39 GMT

Arid region sees families return home as rainwater harvesting systems make farming viable again

GHOOL, Pakistan (AlertNet) – A year ago, Aslam Bibi and her family left their village and moved to a nearby town, desperate to find a way to eke out a living in the face of failing rainfall that made subsistence impossible.

But after a few months, Bibi returned, drawn back home by news of newly constructed reservoirs that have begun soaking the parched farmlands in her area and replenishing underground aquifers.

Water is now supplied to Bibi’s village of Ghool from a nearby reservoir and mini dam. Stored rainwater is funnelled through a 4 km-long (2.5-mile) pipeline. The dam, completed in July of this year, is part of a project to mitigate the effects of climate change in rural areas hard hit by declining rainfall.

“My husband has resumed cultivation of groundnuts on our four acres,” Bibi said happily while sewing clothes in the courtyard of her home. “I no longer leave home in the morning to fetch water for drinking, sanitation and other domestic needs,” she added.

Instead, the 39-year-old spends the first half of each day as a tailor to support the family’s income – time she had previously needed to fetch water from a natural pond some 4 km (2.5 miles) from her home.

Bibi’s village is in Chakwal district, at the beginning of the Potohar plateau and the Salt Range of hills, about 90 km (56 miles) south-east of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The district stretches over 6,500 square km (2,500 square miles) of arid terrain, and its population of nearly 1.5 million rely on rainfall for their water supply.

The region has seem worrisome reductions in recent years in the rainfall it receives, a change experts say may be the result of climate change.

“When rains were profuse some 8 to 10 years back, locals grew only wheat, groundnuts and pulses,” said Haji Khan, a 61-year-old groundnut farmer. “But the area under these crops has shrunk over 60 percent in Chakwal district.”


Local farmers say that rainfall in the area has declined by 50 percent or more in the past 10 years.

Arif Mahmood, director-general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, confirmed that average rainfall in the district in 2010-2011 was 300-400 mm, down from 560-635 mm in the years before 2007.

Khalid Iqbal, a 35-year-old cattle farmer in Ghool, said that until about five years ago, the water table was 100-120 feet (30-36m) underground. Now, it has dropped to 500 feet (150m).

Before the dam was built, it had become nearly impossible to grow vegetables and fodder in Ghool and other nearby villages, because declines in rainfall had made water so scarce, recalled 35-year-old Jehan Khan.

Now Khan points delightedly to a field of potatoes. “This is first time I’ve grown it,” he says. “My crop is nearly ready for harvesting.”

Khan says the difference has been the area’s new reservoir, designed to capture and hold scarce rainfall. About 500 households (4,500 to 5,000 people) and 100 hectares (250 acres) of irrigated land benefit from the mini dam, which has a catchment area of 2.4 hectares (6 acres) and can store 24,000 cubic metres (850,000 cubic feet) of water, enough to meet the village’s agricultural and domestic needs for eight months.

The dam was built at a cost of 3.6 million Pakistani rupees ($37,000), 80 percent of which was paid by the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF), a nongovernmental organisation. The remainder of the cost was paid by residents of Ghool.  


Now, “many farming families which had migrated to nearby urban areas in search of an alternative livelihood are returning to the area because of the dam,” said Aslam Bibi.

Khalid Iqbal, 32, says since the dam was constructed he now grows his own fodder for his five cows and two goats, saving himself 18,000-20,000 rupees ($187-$208) a month.

“I sell the surplus to other cattle farmers, which has earned me extra money and helped improve our household economic conditions,” Khalid said.

The mini dam in Ghool is part of a 65 million rupee ($680,000) Drought Mitigation and Preparedness Project being implemented by the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund in a number of villages in Chakwal district. 

“We have built 28 rainwater harvesting ponds, eight mini dams, six check dams (and) two dug wells to benefit 2,700 households,” said Kamal Afridi, general manager for water, energy and climate change affairs at PPAF.

The scheme also has involved construction of 33 pipelines to supply water from the dams and rainwater harvesting ponds for irrigation and domestic purposes.

Afridi said that communities had contributed about 13 million rupees ($134,000) to the projects, with the remaining 52 million rupees ($543,000) coming from the World Bank.

Raja Munir Hussain Janjua, regional programme officer with the National Rural Support Programme, an NGO which is helping PPAF to implement the project, said there were plans to build 16 further mini dams and to install 100 biogas plants and 30 solar water pumps in the district.,

PPAF’s Afridi said that Pakistan is the first country in South Asia to implement this drought mitigation model, which was developed at the University of Nebraska’s National Drought Mitigation Center in the United States.

According to Afridi, the model could be replicated in countries facing similar challenges, including Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan.

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