The decrease in runoff water as a consequence of the accumulative effect of increase in the tree cover through tremendous plantations and ban on forest harvesting since 1993 in the water producing areas of KP and AJK has caused water crisis in the country.
River Indus: A Lifeline for Agriculture
River Indus is a transboundary and trans-Himalayan river of South and Central Asia, having a total length of 3180 kilometers (km) with a catchment area of 1,165,000 square (sq) km and 154 million acres feet (MAF) annual run off. Known as the lifeline for agriculture and the power machine of Pakistan, River Indus originates from the world’s highest and largest snow reservoirs (glaciers) in the north, flows across the full length of Pakistan to the south, and finally sinks in the Arabian Sea. The entire 800,000 sq km area of Pakistan is catchment of Indus River. Its 400,000 sq km upper basin area is situated in China, Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) and Afghanistan, but once the river enters the territory of Pakistan, then its water never crosses the borders of any other neighboring country, and exclusively irrigates the fertile lands in all the four provinces of Pakistan through the world’s largest canal system.
River Indus carries water from the world’s three highest mountain ranges, i.e., Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush. The highest peak of Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges, K-2, Tirich Mir, and the Nanga Parbat of Himalayan ranges are located in the catchment of River Indus. It is interesting to note that K-2 and Nanga Parbat are ranked as the world’s second and sixth highest peaks. A renowned hydrologist and ex-Chairman Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), Mr. Shams-ul-Haq declared River Indus as a ‘power machine’ due to its tremendous hydropower potential of more than 70,000 megawatts (MW). Similarly, Mr. Arnold J. Toynbee, an English historian, in his esasy “The Indus in Fetters,” has also described the might of River Indus, suggesting the harvesting of its energy between Attock and Kalabagh, where the river is naturaly fettered between the mountains.
Paksitan was declared as a water scarce country in 2012, based on having less than 1000 cubic meters (m3) per capita water availability; however, the ground reality is that Pakistran is suffering every year from the world’s worst flood disasters as evident from the floods of 2010.
In addition, thousands of water tankers transport water for the purpose of irrigation and forest plantations during hot days as well as hundred of water pumps are used for the same purpose. When these plantations are established, they feed on groundwater through its long and deep roots. Thus, exhausting the groundwater and the permanent springs in the hilly areas, and also the perennial springs in Lal Qilla Maidan, Lower Dir dried out. But for this problem, not only the eucalyptus is responsible, rather all forest trees including robenia, poplar, ailenthus, shisham, chir and deodar are responsible. This situation also reflects the mismanagement of water resources of the country, especially the River Indus.
The precipitations received in the catchments of River Indus is in the form of snowfall during December to March, and the monsoon rainfall during the months of July and August. The precipitation of winter snowfall and monsoon rainfall is almost of equal quantity. The snowfall at the northern half catchment area of River Indus includes most of the area of Malakand and Hazara Divisions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, Gilgit-Baltistan, transboundary basin area in Tibet, China, and the entire IIOJK. The snowfall replenishes the snow deposits (glaciers).
The snowfall received during the months of December to April in the northern catchment area melts during the months of May to September, producing runoff water at the rate of approximately 0.4 million cusecs in the River Indus during the months of June, July and August. During this time of monsoon, precipitation also takes place in the southern catchment area of River Indus, producing almost the same quantity of runoff water, i.e., 0.4 million cusecs. Thus, the 0.4 million cusecs of runoff water is produced through melting of snow in the northern basin area of River Indus, while flowing towards the south, joining on its way an equal amount of runoff water produced from monsoon rains in the southern catchment. The combined effect of the runoff water produced from snow melting and monsoon rains in both the southern and northern catchment areas of River Indus leads to catastrophic floods of quantum 0.8 to 1.12 million cusecs in the plains of Punjab and Sindh province every year.
Pakistan, being an agricultural country has almost 70% of its population dependent on agriculture and agriculture-based industries. The climate of Pakistan is arid and forests in the plains of Punjab and Sindh (Changa Manga, Kundian, Chichawatni and Mayani Hyderabad) are mainly dependent on canal irrigation system.
River Indus’ peak and minimum flow has a great difference. During the peak flow in July and August, the water quantity in the Indus is much more than the agricultural requirements, therefore, almost 40 MAF of precious water is lost in the Arabian Sea. While during the minimum flow from September to May, not only the farmers fight with each other over water consumption for their crops, but during these months, the federating units also blame each other for theft of water. The flow of River Indus is trans-country, i.e., it runs through more than one country, covering the distance of 1700 km from the northern peaks to Arabian Sea in the south. This is how the River Indus is irrigating the plains situated in KP, Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh.
Pakistan has the annual water resources of 154 MAF, 55 MAF of runoff ground water, reservoir of 17 MAF hill torents and 640 MAF of snow reserves in the world’s largest glaciers. The storage capacity is 20.4 MAF, i.e., 13 % in its two resevoirs of Tarbela and Mangla, while 52 MAF water is annually lost to Arabian sea during the monsoon floods. India has similar water resources, but the difference is its better water resource management. Contrary to Pakistan, storage capacity of India is 245 MAF, i.e., 33% in its 2000 dams, and 750 MAF of runoff water.1
Tarbela Dam has a water storage capacity of 13.64 MAF and hydropower electric installed capacity of 4,888 MW. The reservoir has a total catchment area of 168,000 sq km. The prime runoff water producing areas in the catchment of Tarbela Dam are of three types.
The first significant basin area is located at the extreme northern portion of the catchment, having an area of 21,193 sq km, comprising glaciers having snow deposits of 2,696 cubic kilometers (km3). This area is devoid of vegetation, fully covered with snow and is outside the monsoon range. The snowfall during winter replenishes the snow melted in the summer.
The second significant runoff water producing area in the catchment of River Indus is 52,000 sq km area, situated down the glaciers, ranging from 13,000 to 8000 feet sea level. This area receives winter snow precipitation, having mostly grassy vegetation and less evapotranspiration; therefore, it produces runoff water through the melting of snow during April to June.
The third significant runoff water producing area in the basin of Tarbela Dam comprises an area of 28,506 sq km, covering Hazara Division, Shangla and Bunir districts of Malakand Division. This area receives both summer monsoon rains as well as winter snowfall, with tremendous vegetation from both agriculture and forest trees. Resultantly, a major portion of the precipitation from monsoon rains and winter snowfall is consumed by both agriculture and forest trees and released back to the atmosphere through the process of evapotranspiration. This is the reason that although this area receives maximum rainfall during monsoon as well as the winter snowfall, it contributes less runoff water to Tarbela Dam with respect to the annual precipitation received in the area. When Tarbela Dam was designed, its life was estimated at 70 to 100 years, keeping in view the silting of the dam due to sediment transportation by the runoff water of monsoon to the basin of the Dam.
To increase its lifespan, large-scale plantations were carried out to stop the sediment transportation to this Dam, particulary from the third catchment area. Therefore, in 1978, a full-fledged Forest Circle, headed by a Conservator of Forests with five Forest Divisions, was established in the name of Tarbela Watershed Management Project. Under this project, since 1978, large-scale plantations have been carried out till date. In addition, different projects including external review panel (ERP), social forestry and billion trees afforestation project (BTAP) have also been launched. These massive plantations doubled the tree cover area in Tarbela catchment in 2020, as compared to the tree cover that existed in 1976. In addition, commercial harvesting in the natural forests in this part of the catchment area was also suspended during 1993. Hazara Gazetteer, published during 1907, mentioned on page 74, 75 and 76 that the forest cover at Hazara District was 21% of its total area. These forests were declared as the chief revenue resource and economic sector, as mentioned on page 69 of the Gazetteer, “Perhaps the chief importance of Hazara lies in its forests.” The massive plantation has increased the forest tree cover of the area comprising the then Hazara District (Abbottabad, Haripur and Mansehra) to 45%, as reported in the Land Cover Atlas prepared by Pakistan Forest Institute. This tremendous increase in the forest cover, coupled with ban on harvesting of natural forests significantly increased the life of Tarbela Dam, but at the same time, reduced the quantity of runoff water from this area by 60% due to an increase in evapotranspiration, which resulted in an increased tree cover. Today, the main economic sector of forest is not contributing to the economy except some daily wage employment in the shape of labor in plantation and negahbans (guardians/caretakers) in protecting the regeneration of natural forests. Also, revenue to the exchequer is negligible as compared to 47% share in the revenue of KP province during 1993.
Mangla Dam has a water storage capacity of 7.4 MAF and hydroelectric power production installed capacity of 1500 MW. Mangla reservoir has a total catchment area of 33334 sq km, out of which, 3000 sq km (Kunhar River) is in KP province, 14000 sq km is in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), and almost 17000 sq km is in IIOJK. 70% catchment area of Mangla Dam receives both type of precipitations, i.e., snowfall during winters and heavy monsoon rains during the period from July to August. This is the reason that despite a small catchment area, the heavy monsoon rains not only inundated Mangla Dam during 1992 monsoon rains, but its spillways were open to discharge water at its full capacity of 1,400,000 cusecs potential. In addition, the raising of Mangla Dam was carried out during 2004 to 2009 to enhance its storage capacity.
To increase the lifespan of Mangla Dam, large-scale plantations were carried out to stop sediment transportation to the dam. Therefore, a well-equipped plantation and development region, headed by a Chief Conservator of Forests, has been established in AJK. In addition, Kunhar Watershed Division established for plantation in the catchment area of Kunhar River in KP province, is a significant contributor to runoff water of Mangla Dam. Large-scale plantations have been carried out in the KP and AJK part of the catchment area of Mangla Dam from 1978 until 2022. These massive plantations have doubled the tree cover area in 2012, as compared to that of 1976. Commercial harvesting in the natural forests in AJK and KP was suspended during 1993. The massive plantation and ban on harvesting of the natural forests significantly increased the life of Mangla Dam, but at the same time, drastically reduced the quantity of runoff water from this area of Mangla reservoir catchment due to an increase in evapotranspiration from increased tree cover. The water intake of Mangla Dam has been significantly disturbed by India through the construction of hydropower projects, such as Wular Barrage and Kishanganga hydel power projects in IIOJK.
The site of Mohmand Dam was identified during the decade of 1960s. The construction of the reservoir at this site will not only safeguard Peshawar Valley, particularly Charsadda from the devastating effects of monsoon floods, but it will also be suitable for the storage of monsoon’s runoff water from River Swat and River Panjkora at Dir. The construction work on this reservoir started on May 2, 2019, having water storage capacity of 1.2 MAF and hydroelectric power generation capacity of 800 MW. The construction of the dam may complete by November 2024.
Huge plantations were carried out since 1978 in the catchment area of Mohmand Dam, comprising Upper and Lower Dir, Swat and Malakand Districts. The plantations were carried out under a watershed management project, social forestry project, Environmental Rehabilitation Project, Kalam Integrated Developmental Project and the Billion Tree Tsunami Project and the plantations are in progress under 10 Billion Tree project. These plantation campaigns have changed the land cover. The runoff water has been inversely affected in the catchment of Mohmand Dam and has been reduced by almost 40% as compared to the average runoff water from this catchment area in the 1970s. The enormous change in tree cover, coupled with the ban on forest harvesting, has caused water crisis in the plains of Sindh and Punjab for irrigating the agricultural lands.
River Chitral, the largest tributary of River Indus originating from Hindu Kush mountain range, having the highest peak of Tirich Mir is in its catchment. Kesu Dam, some 5 km north to Drosh town of Chitral was proposed on the river. It is interesting to note that River Chitral originates in District Chitral of Pakistan, enters Arandu town bordered with Afghanistan, where multiple small rivers from Nuristan, Dara-e-Pech and Asmar rejoin Pakistan at Warsak, Peshawar Valley with a new name Kabul River. Except its small tributaries, this river does not directly provide irrigation water, neither in Chitral District nor on its way from Arandu to Warsak in the territory of Afghanistan. As it enters Peshawar Valley, a low height Warsak Dam was constructed on the Kabul River at Warsak in 1960s. The dam is generating 250 MW hydroelectric power and also irrigates the southern and western portion of Peshawar Valley through Warsak Canal.
Despite the unprecedented efforts made by the KP Forest Department and Aga Khan Rural Support Programme for the plantation of forest trees in the catchment area of River Chitral, the forest cover has not been increased due to unfavorable dry climate in Chitral where even forest trees need irrigation water. However, growing fruit bearing trees of walnut, apple, apricot, pomegranate and mulberry, which was the culture and speciality of Chitral, changed with poplar and robenia on agricultural lands in Upper and Lower Chitral in the form of farm forestry. This phenomenon has badly affected the fruit production in Chitral. This is the reason why the runoff water in the catchment of River Chitral remains unchanged and its average water capacity since the 1970s is the same. Thus, River Chitral has the distinction that its average flow due to negligible change in tree cover has remained constant.
Findings and Recommendations
The average water resources per unit area and with respect to the population of Pakistan is higher than that of the world as well as its neighbors, Afghanistan and Iran, while it is equal to India. This is clear from the fact that Pakistan has a storage capacity of 20.04 MAF, i.e., 13% of its total runoff water of 154 MAF as compared to India, having a storage capacity of 245 MAF, i.e., 33% of its total runoff water of 750 MAF. Faulty distribution of water further exacerbates this issue. Therefore, it is recommended to construct upstream dams between Tarbela and Dasu Dam at Thakot, Bisham and Pattan, and construction of dams between Basha Dam and Attabad Lake, on a similar pattern of 17 dams as constructed on River Yangtze of China. Construction of dams on River Indus will cater for the generation of cheap and clean electricity which can fulfill the entire electricity need of Pakistan for domestic, industrial and commercial sectors, as well as for the future electric transport sector. It will also reduce the need of spending billions of dollars of foreign exchange on the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG), petroleum and coal.
The Indus is in fetters in the mountains from Attock to Kalabagh, yet the people of Pakistan face devastating floods during July and August, alongwith 40 MAF of precious water, i.e., 26% of total runoff. The water lost to the Arabian Sea during these floods results in acute water shortage for agricultural crops and fruit orchards from October to February every year. Recommended construction of Kalabagh Dam for the storage of monsoon runoff water is the only option to meet irrigation water requirement of agricultural crops in order to minimize the summer flood disasters in Pakistan.
River Indus flows across the entire length of the country and has vast fertile land in its bed, and in some places in the plains of Sindh and Punjab province, it is wider than 10 km. It also inundates the surrounding towns, cities, and agriculture crops during the monsoon floods. Therefore, training of River Indus, down to Kalabagh and up to Karachi, by rightsizing of the vast width of the bed of River Indus is recommended through the construction of strong and reinforced concrete cement embankments. In addition, deepening of the bottom of River Indus is also necessary to make it suitable for inland shipping. Construction of strong embankments and training will reclaim millions of acres of fertile land from the vast bed of River Indus in both Punjab and Sindh province. The reclaimed agricultural crops produced on this fertile land will not only compensate the expenditures of this massive construction work, but it will also address the employment and food security problem of the increasing population of Pakistan.
Pakistan faces goods transportation problem from the southern seaports (Karachi and Gwadar) to the north, with a distance of almost 1700 km. Rightsizing and deepening of the River Indus will make it suitable for navigation. Also, the embankments should be so designed to afford a railway line and motorway on both its right and left banks. The railway traffic of Pakistan can be powered through the electricity generated from hydel power stations, to be established on River Indus, as planned during the 1960s as a pilot project and as a result, the railway network between Lahore and Khanewal was electrified. This arrangement will culminate the problems faced in the transportation of goods.
The huge plantations carried out in the monsoon catchment area of Tarbela and Mangla Dams under the Watershed Mangement Project and BTAP, as well as ban on forest harvesting, has increased the life of these dams, resulting in less sediment transportation from this area at the cost of significant reduction of runoff water due to tremendous increase in evapotranspiration. Therefore, the recommended construction of small concrete dams in the sub-catchments of Tarbela and Mangla Dams will increase its life by halting the sediments and rationalizing tree cover through the development of agricultural crops and grasslands for livestock rearing.
The accumulative effect of enormous increase in the tree cover of all species including eucalyptus in Malakand and Hazara Division has adversely jeopardized the ecosystem of the arid climatic zone of Pakistan. Hence, resulting in the reduction of average 25 to 30% runoff water in the River Indus basin, as compared to the decade of 1970. The decrease in runoff water as a consequence of the accumulative effect of increase in the tree cover through tremendous plantations and ban on forest harvesting since 1993, in the water producing areas of KP and AJK has caused water crisis in the country. Scientific harvesting of forests is recommended on a sustainable basis, to meet the market demand of firewood and timber from our forests. It will certainly put an end to the present import of timber and will save Pakistan’s foreign exghange spending on imported timer and wood products.
Pakistan has been adequately gifted with all types of water resources (monsoon rains, winter snowfall, permanent glaciers in the north, groundwater and Arabian Sea in the south). These resources in totality are available to only a few countries of the world. The issue is the lack of priority to use water either for raising plantation of forest trees for the development of tourism or water harvesting from the water springs of Pakistan, comprising the Malakand and Hazara Divisions of KP and AJK for raising agricultural crops (sugarcane, rice, wheat, cotton and orchards in the plains of KP, Punjab and Sindh). Therefore, recommended for food security and socioeconomic development, the forest area and plantations raised in the catchment areas of Tarbela, Mangla and Mohmand Dams can be scientifically evaluated by the experts of KP Forest Department, Pakistan Forest Institute Peshawar, and the Agriculture Rersearch Council of Pakistan and WAPDA.
The writer is the Principal of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Forest School Thai Abbottabad.
E-mail: [email protected]
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