Climate Change in Downstream Areas of the Indus River Basin
12 Feb 2015

By Dr Abid Hussain, Food Security Economist, ICIMOD

Climate change is inducing severe impacts on agriculture, water, food security, human health and habitat in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region. Understanding the inter-linkages of upstream, midstream and downstream areas is very important to mitigate the impacts of and adapt to the climatic changes. Any change happening in upstream areas has direct and indirect impacts on the livelihoods of the people living in the midstream and downstream areas. Among direct impacts, for instance, erratic precipitation in high altitudes may result in floods in the lower areas. Likewise, indirect impacts like losses to agriculture and livelihoods due to erratic rains in high altitudes may result in increased pressure on food-production systems in lower areas to fulfill the additional demand of the people from upstream areas. Moreover, outmigration from highly vulnerable zones in upstream areas may also result in increased competition for opportunities, employment and accommodation in the lower areas.  

Field Visit by HI-AWARE and PARC

Recently, the Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience (HI-AWARE) initiative under the regional programme ‘River Basins’ of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has started conducting a pre-research situation analysis in upstream, midstream and downstream areas of four river basins—the Indus, Upper Ganga, Gandaki and Teesta—to understand the livelihoods of people, climate change impacts, vulnerabilities of the local people and systems, and adaptation measures. In this regard, a team of researchers from ICIMOD and Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) conducted a field visit in the downstream areas of the Indus river basin, i.e. Chaj Doab, in the Sargodha and Mandi Bahauddin districts of Punjab province, Pakistan, from January 6 to16, 2015.  

Discussions with farmers’ communities and government institutions, such as the On-farm Water Management (OFWM) Sargodah programme of the Agriculture Department, Punjab, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), and Mona Reclamation Experimental Project (MREP), Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), Bhalwal, provided deep insights on locally observed climatic changes and their impacts and the adaptation strategies and adaptive capacity of the communities and institutions.

Sargodha and Mandi Bahauddin are the leading districts in citrus production in Pakistan. Among other crops, rice, wheat and sugarcane are the major crops in the region. In most areas of this region, canal water is available for irrigation, but the amount of canal water available is not enough to fulfill the farmers’ irrigation needs. The frequency of floods in the adjoining areas of the Chenab and Jehlam rivers (tributaries of the Indus river) has increased due to erratic events in the upstream areas. The local people do not mind the light floods because these help recharge the water table and improve soil fertility. However, heavy floods cause a lot of destruction to the agriculture systems and livelihoods of the people.

Climate Change in Downstream Areas of the Indus River BasinDrip irrigation system adopted by an agriculture farm in Sargodha as local adaptation to water stress; Photo by Bilal Iqbal/PARC


How the Local People are Adapting

The local people reported that they have observed obvious changes in the climate compared to what the situation was ten years ago. Temperature and precipitation patterns have changed significantly too. In recent years, the people have observed increased incidences of erratic events. However, the yearly frequency of rainfall has reduced. Farmers also reported a decline in the availability of canal water due to prolonged durations of Nehar Bandhi. Delays in the timing of seasons have also been observed by the farmers. And due to changes in temperature and shifts in seasons, pest attacks on crops and livestock diseases have also increased.

Interestingly, the farmers have not made any significant changes in their cropping patterns in response to the effects of climate change. They would like to adapt to the changes, but due to market issues and lack of funds, they are reluctant to do so. However, in flood-prone areas, some farmers have substituted rice cultivation with sugarcane due to its better resilience against flood water. In areas where canal water is not sufficient to fulfill irrigation needs, some farmers, particularly the citrus growers, are adapting to water stress by using improved irrigation techniques, i.e. by employing sprinklers and drip irrigation. For instance, a progressive farmer earlier could only water four acres of his citrus orchard using the canal water that was available to him. Now, the same amount of water is being used to water 14 acres of agricultural land through drip irrigation and sprinkler methods installed respectively on nine  and five acres of land. Farmers store the canal water in a small reservoir and pump it to drip and sprinkler systems, using an electric motor or diesel engine. Another progressive farmer in the same area installed a similar kind of irrigation system to use the canal water for nine acres; earlier, using conventional methods, that amount of water would have been enough for only 1.5 acres. As for other farms, one farm in particular, owned by Mr. Muhammad Yaar (in Bola Zereen village, Tehsil Bhera), is worth mentioning; the farmer has made adaptations to climatic changes by enhancing the flexibility (i.e. integrated activities) of his agricultural systems. He has integrated livestock with the cultivation of fruit trees and non-fruit trees and vegetables with cereals and sugarcane. The farmer’s household energy needs for cooking are being met by the biogas being produced from livestock dung, and water stress is managed through the use of a drip irrigation system.

Role of Government Institutions in Adaptation


Climate Change in Downstream Areas of the Indus River BasinAn ICIMOD and a PARC staff discuss water management issues with the Project-in-Charge of the Mona Reclamation Experimental Project; Photo by Bilal Iqbal/PARC
The government institutions are also playing their part in the adaptation process. PCRWR is conducting farmers’ training sessions and workshops on the adoption of improved irrigation techniques. At its research station, it demonstrates irrigation methods such as drip, sprinkler and furrow-irrigation methods.  It also demonstrates water conservation practices, particularly mulching and laser-levelling methods, and promotes organic agriculture. It is also experimenting with different kinds of organic fertilisers (such as poultry residues, green manure, residues of leguminous crops and livestock dung) to assess their effects on agricultural productivity.  Moreover, PCRWR provide laboratory services for testing the water (for irrigation and drinking) and soil quality, and it also works as an advisory body to the private and public sectors. It has initiated training courses on capacity building in water quality monitoring for the water supply agencies of Pakistan, representing the water and sanitation agencies, public health engineering departments and local governments.


OFWM focuses on reducing the water losses (nearly 30%) that occur due to the poor structure and design of water channels and field applications. The programme promotes improved designs of water channels and irrigation methods, such as drip, sprinkler and bubbler irrigation techniques. District Officer, OFWM ‘Mr. M. Akram Khan Niazi’ reported that compared to conventional irrigation methods, the improved methods save 30-50% water in cereal cultivation, 20-35% in fruit cultivation, and 70-75% in vegetable cultivation. To demonstrate improved irrigation techniques, OFWM regularly organises farmers’ events (e.g. Farmers’ Day) regularly. OFWM also establishes experimental sites on farmers’ fields.


MREP focuses on land resources and the quality and management of groundwater. It provides suggestions on cropping systems and disseminates developed techniques to the farmers. MREP used to organise farmers’ training workshops and publish monthly advisories on water use for different crops. However, these practices have been discontinued since 2008 due to a shortage of funds and a downsizing of the staff.

Climate Change in Downstream Areas of the Indus River BasinA PARC staff and an official from the Agriculture Department discuss technical support to farmers in Sargodha; Photo by Bilal Iqbal/PARC


Conclusions from the Visit

The consultations and field observations did not reveal any novel findings related to climate change and local adaptation strategies. All the stakeholders, such as farmers and government institutions, seem to be on track for taking up adaptation processes. However, some unobserved factors were sensed while interviewing the farmers and representatives of the government departments. For instance, all those farmers who were adapting to climatic changes were financially sound and were also supported by external agencies. Poor farmers were unable to implement the adaptation measures—i.e. changes in cropping patterns, new irrigation techniques, improved access to safe drinking water, and adopting organic farming and alternative energy sources—due to lack of funds, fear of market risks and because the government gave less attention to them. It was mostly farmers with medium- and large-sized farms who participated in the farmers’ events (i.e. workshops and demonstrations), and they were the ones who succeeded in obtaining support and services from government and non-government institutions. There seemed to be no equity in local adaptation strategies. A very important question thus arises: “How can the poor and marginalised farmers be included in the adaptation process?”