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Fair spate irrigation from the source

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FDW Pakistan praktijkverhaal community meeting header

Pakistan is generally dry. But when it rains, it pours. After these heavy rains, water flows down the mountain ranges. For centuries, farmers in Balochistan (South-West Pakistan) have found a way to use these waters to their advantage: spate irrigation. Spate irrigation is a unique water resource system that makes productive use of short-duration floods in dry riverbeds. But it has its issues. Influential farmers living upstream take the majority of water, leaving little for downstream farmers, leading to tensions. The Flood-Based Livelihood Network (FBLN), Dutch social enterprise MetaMeta, 2 local NGOs and the Pakistani government have joined efforts to adapt and apply an improved policy to create fairer water distribution. This is their public-private partnership story.

"If you spend 10 million dollars on an irrigation project, half should go towards involving the community."

Farmers have built the spate irrigation system over centuries. "For hundreds of years, spate irrigation has organised itself," says Reinier Veldman from MetaMeta. Farmers have managed the systems based on informal rules and allocations, which stem from historical entitlements and agreements. "But this does not work everywhere anymore." When Balochistan became part of Pakistan instead of an independent state, the age-old rules of spate irrigation no longer applied because the area got a new government. So now, when it comes to irrigation rights, it is often the right of the strongest that counts. Reinier explains, "The farmers need rules and enforcement from the new government." This project aims to develop a new water-sharing policy and put it to direct use.

Government involvement

But commodity distribution is a sensitive topic, especially water. The current government approach does not include a fair distribution of water. Allah Bakhsh from FBLN explains, "The government worries more about other problems they have to deal with. But by not doing anything, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are not getting any water at all. I know dams were built in other areas 10 years ago. But due to poor distribution, not a single acre of the land has been irrigated. Issues should be well-negotiated, thought out and made into a policy.  Involving the local people in this process is critical. If you spend 10 million dollars on an irrigation project, half should go towards involving the community."

Convincing the farmers

Alerted by farmers, Allah Bakhsh and his colleagues got to work to engage with the community. FBLN and MetaMeta consulted farmer networks to define the distribution boundaries. "The biggest obstacle is that rich farmers simply do not respond to your request," says Allah Bakhsh. "Or they agree to a meeting but say it is not possible to change anything. Some are just troublemakers." If Allah Bakhsh meets such people, he tries things another way. "We continue the discussion with other farmers and inhabitants. In the end, when the majority says something and the government is convinced, things will be set straight." This convincing of the government alongside the farmers is essential because they are the ones that need to enforce the established water agreements. "We eventually get all farmers on board through agreements, meetings, workshops, and notifications. We just keep going."

The rules can change

Bit by bit, this approach of talking to and informing farmers has led to updated rules. The government is building new mini-barrages, and some canals lead the water where it should be. Only working in partnership and taking a bottom-up and top-down approach leads to an understanding of what is fair. Reinier is happy with the results so far and wants to scale up. "There are many more plains in Pakistan with spate irrigation and inequitable water distribution. We support the government in determining how to engage in these areas. This project is a way to test, see what works and record the lessons for other areas. We are working on a social investment package, a guide, to replicate what we are doing in other similar areas. Spate irrigation is important to these communities. Once the farmers without a voice are heard, and the government is convinced, the rules can change. We have proven so."

More information on FDW

For more information on public-private partnerships, read our project summary. Would you like to learn more about FDW or one of its projects? Although the facility is closed, we are happy to share relevant information and advice. Please email us, and one of our advisors will contact you.

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