Irrigation schemes get a breath of fresh air in Pakistan
25 May 2017

by Zeeshan Tahir Virk, Dr. Bashir Ahmad, Abdul Wahab Siyal, Dr. Munir Ahmad

Research in agriculture is often looked at sceptically in developing countries, where it is believed that innovative technologies can only be adopted by large progressive farmers. This misconception prevails in all factions of our society ranging from simple farmers to high-level decision makers.

The HI-AWARE project aims at changing this idea by explicitly focusing on bringing into good use whatever research it conducts. It makes all efforts to ensure that the benefits of high quality research reach all types of end users.

In this case it concerns the farmers of Tehsil Talagang, District Chakwaal, in the Potohar Plateau. Talagang is a small town at the very downstream of the River Soan, one of HI-AWARE’s focus areas in Pakistan. The environment of the area is semi-arid for it receives only about 500-750 mm max rainfall per year. Surface water sources are limited due to the undulating topography of the Potohar Plateau, and groundwater is also very deep. Agriculture in this area is mainly rain-fed, so it is practiced on a limited scale. Despite large land holdings, the lack of adequate water availability limits agricultural production in the area.

A view of Soan River near the HI-AWARE project site in Talagang. (Source: Tariq Mustafa)

The Punjab government’s On-Farm Water Management (OWFM) programme had made huge investments in lift irrigation schemes and high efficiency irrigation (drip/sprinkler) systems (HEIS) for productivity enhancement in Talagang, but farmers soon abandoned these systems because of high operational costs (diesel/electricity). In 2015, a team of HI-AWARE researchers investigating critical moments in the same area came across a farmer named Mr. Nasir Farooq Awan, with a land holding of approximately 15 acres. Most of his land was barren and he was running a poultry farm on his land. Mr Nasir explained that he tried to reclaim his fallow land by implementing the OFWM lift irrigation scheme, but could not operate this system for long due to high operational costs. He eventually resorted to poultry farming for subsistence.

Evaluating the potential of his farm and commending his willingness for cooperation, the research team selected this farm to be a demonstration site for the implementation of the HI-AWARE’s Climate Smart Technology Package. After numerous diagnostic and feasibility studies, the deep groundwater table which ranged from 190 to 300 feet was identified as the main constraint for productive agriculture in the area. The high operational costs of pumping water were associated with the high depth of ground water. Unbearable operational expenditure and numerous overhauls of the entire pumping system forced Mr. Nasir to abandon agriculture activities completely.

Researchers, after due deliberation, came up with an innovative solution. PARC, which is implementing HI-AWARE projects in Pakistan, has extensive experience in providing clean and efficient D.C. solar pumping solutions to troubled farmers all across Pakistan. Those pumps can only pump from shallow ground water down to 60-70 feet, though. Such a pump would require a lot of energy here, and also would require more solar panels; so, this solution would be very expensive. The innovation brought in by PARC researchers under HI-AWARE was the introduction of an A.C. inverter. This would enable a small-sized motor and pump assembly to pump large volumes of water from greater depths.

Solar pumping system with intermittent storage, solar panels, and operational irrigation system is visible in background (Source: Tariq Mustafa)

This solution was so effective that Mr Awan, the farmer, agreed to convert his existing pumping system into a solar powered A.C one. This pump was installed in Talagang with expenditure at nearly half of what might have been for a D.C. Pump.

In addition, the HI-AWARE team suggested him a few varieties of rain-fed cereals and fodder crops to initiate his agricultural activities.

Row of Solar Panels installed at HI-AWARE project site in Talagang (Source: Thomas Pilston)

A worker cleaning dust off the solar panels (Source: Thomas Pilston)
Fodder maize being sown in the field, rain gun risers of the OWFM irrigation scheme can also be seen (Source: Tariq Mustafa)
Rain gun sprinkling irrigation over the fodder maize (Source: Abbas Mushtaq)

A recent visit to the farm revealed that the farmer had cultivated only 20% of his land with the suggested cereal crops. Nearly 80% of the remaining land had been used for fodder maize cultivation. The fodder was being cultivated to feed the livestock raised by the farmer, who had constructed a large livestock pen (200ft x 50ft), where he was keeping about 50 cows, 2 horses, and numerous goats. The farm manager informed the team that with the drastic decline in 2016 of market prices for cereal grain from rain-fed areas they had resorted to raising livestock for milk and meat. He said: ‘We initially experimented with a small herd of 5 cows. The resulting dairy products were sold so successfully that we increased the livestock holding 10 times in just one year.’

The farmer is now planning to increase his herd further and sell his dairy products to the nearby big cities of Chakwal, Jhelum, and Rawalpindi. He is also helping the HI-AWARE team train farmers of nearby villages about on-farm water and energy management techniques. 

A view of the newly constructed livestock pen. Farm fields can be seen in the background (Source: Thomas Pilston)

A worker feeding fodder to the cattle in the livestock pen (Source: Thomas Pilston)

The HI-AWARE team foresees that similarly abandoned irrigation schemes in the area can be revived by out-scaling this low-cost, innovative solution. Huge investments already made by the government may be reclaimed in the process. This approach also has the potential to be used for up- scaling of climate smart technology in similar rain-fed areas of the Potohar and Balochistan Plateaus. Reports of farmers adopting this technology in their abandoned systems are being received and the team is planning to collect evidence of these adoptions to advocate a policy change. It is hoped that farmers of the area will now benefit from this technology and will not only accept this intervention as a climate change adaptation for now, but will also readily adopt similar climate-smart packages in future.