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21 Mar 2022 | Water

Climate change and water security in the mountains of Pakistan

Ajaz Ali & Sharmila Dhungana

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A local women’s organization is managing the agricultural site in Khyber village. Photo: Karen Conniff

“I remember during my childhood the snow would reach up to nearly half my body, and we were unable to walk outside. This was the case in December, January, and February, almost every year. However, snowfall has declined significantly and sometimes we do not even see snow for the whole year.”

– Mirza Hussain, 40, a resident of Khyber, a small village in upper Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), Pakistan, reflects on how snowfall patterns have changed over the years in the mountain region of the Upper Indus Basin (UIB).

Climate change impacts on agriculture and water security

The unpredictable nature of snow and glaciers is of grave concern for the community, especially in GB, where 95% of farmers depend on irrigation from snow and glacier melt.

Glaciers across UIB are losing mass and the GB region is no different. The Khurdopin Glacier in the remote Shimshal Valley has been surging since 2017. The Passu Glacier saw a 10% glacier mass loss from 1977–2014. The Shisper Glacier has been advancing since 2018, threatening downstream communities, eroding agricultural lands, and disrupting agriculture and drinking water supply lines. Similarly, in the Ghulkin Glacier, small lakes that have formed inside burst frequently, damaging agricultural land and stretches of the Karakoram Highway.

Fozia Parveen, DPhil in Engineering Science from Oxford University and a resident of Hunza says, “Many researchers think that the Karakoram anomaly or advancing of glaciers is proof that data on climate change varies and not all glaciers are receding. This could be due to excessive glacier melting at the bottom, resulting in glacier thinning. This causes the glaciers to slide forward, placing the lives of communities downstream at risk.”

Traditional irrigation channels called kuhls are glacier-fed and disruption of these channels is common with glacier retreat and climate-induced disasters such as glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). These disruptions in irrigation channels affects agriculture water security in GB, the main source of livelihood for over 90% of the population.

disruption of glacier-fed irrigation channels
The disruption of glacier-fed irrigation channels is common in Gilgit-Baltistan. Photo: Ajaz Ali, ICIMOD

 

“The main challenge is water scarcity for agriculture in Zarabaad. We can only water our fruit and non-fruit trees and fodder plots and cannot grow wheat and potatoes – the main crops for our livelihood,”

– shares Bibi Najaf, a farmer from the Zarabaad, GB.

Adapting to water scarcity

The communities in GB have been adopting various practices to ensure the proper use of their limited water resources. In the village of Khyber in upper Hunza, a community-based organization called the Shahi Khyber Imamabad Welfare Organization formed seven groups among 168 households in the village. Once a week, each group receives access to water for their crop fields and orchards for the whole day.

“It is a very effective water governance mechanism, which has made our lives easy. Otherwise, we would be fighting with each other for water access”,

– says Ali Rehbar, a local farmer.

The farmers of Nasirabad in lower Hunza, with around 800 households, draw water from the neighbouring Pissan village of Nagar district to meet their irrigation needs. The community has installed a pipe to channel water from Nagar and each farmer waits one and a half months for their access to irrigation water.

 

Energy-efficient alternative irrigation technologies

While such mobilization of community efforts for water management is commendable, it is not a viable and sustainable solution for agriculture water security. Hence, innovative and scalable measures are needed to improve water security.

“If we manage to irrigate barren lands with innovative technology, it can double individual cultivable landholdings, and help improve income and food security,”

– shares Muhammad Tahir, a local community leader.

Considering that a large area of arable land in GB is located at a higher altitude than the main river course, water-lifting technologies can be a potential solution to channel water from the river to irrigate agricultural land and expand land under cultivation. Water-lifting technologies, such as hydraulic ram pumps and solar pumps, can lift river water to these fields. While the hydro-ram technology uses zero external energy and is powered by the momentum of flowing water, solar pumps need solar energy. Both technologies require site-specific pre-conditions for successful operation. The solar pump works efficiently in sediment-free waters while hydro-pump requires sufficient gradient to generate the required lift.

Recognizing the feasibility of these options through field visits and consultations with partners, ICIMOD piloted hydraulic and solar pumps in different villages of GB. These technologies not only help expand arable land size but also increases agricultural production.

The hydro-ram pump
The hydro-ram pump is an energy efficient technology which runs on zero energy. Photo: Fazal Karim, WWF- Pakistan

 

In Khyber village, which is one of the pilot sites, the hydraulic ram pumps supply water through a low head for 1 hectare of an apple orchard, with integrated drip lines for alley cropping and tunnel farming. The drip irrigation system helps make efficient use of the limited water quantity lifted through the pumps. As a part of the pilot intervention, we worked with our implementing partners to establish a 2.5-hectare apple orchard that is irrigated using solar pumps. Another 2.5-hectare Fuji apple orchard was also established in Moorkhun. The overall average survival rate of such plantations is around 70%, indicating a significant success in converting these barren expanses into cultivable lands.

 

A more secure water future: Scaling for a wider impact

Since water-lifting technologies can improve and diversify livelihood options, increase arable land size, and revitalize agriculture, it is crucial to focus on scalability and sustainability for wider reach and impact.

Community ownership is critical for outscaling and upscaling of such interventions. For instance, in Khyber village, the women’s organization plays the lead role in project site management and technology monitoring. WWF-Pakistan with support from UNDP has replicated this model in 60 sites and the federal government too has plans to upscale this to irrigate around 2,000 acres. It is also crucial to factor in the importance of community leadership in taking forward and sustaining these efforts.

 

“Earlier we used to fetch water for irrigating vegetable and fruit trees in buckets, but now this is easier because of the hydraulic pump. It is very economical to buy, and it runs 24 hours without any energy. We could also buy it on our own because we have other land that need lifting water,”

– shares a community member from Nagar district, one of the sites where this technology has been introduced by WWF-Pakistan with support from UNDP.

Collaboration among the community, local government bodies, and development organizations can ensure that appropriate technologies are deployed in mountain regions that are feeling the impacts of climate change. It is also important to build and nurture local institutions that can maintain and monitor them to improve water and food security in the high mountains.

 

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