Can Punjab's Agricultural Dreams Coexist with Cholistan's Cultural Gems?

Punjab has designs to divert water from the Indus River system using two barrages at Bahawalnagar and Hasilpur to turn parts of Cholistan into cultivable land using canal irrigation. The region's interests might be better served however, with smart agriculture.

Can Punjab's Agricultural Dreams Coexist with Cholistan's Cultural Gems?

The vast expanse of Cholistan, adorned with 17 historic forts and teeming with the largest livestock population in Pakistan, presents a complex landscape. Yet, beneath the surface lies a simmering conflict – Punjab's ambitious plans to transform this arid region into a green agricultural landscape clash with the imperative of ecological preservation and the concerns of the lower riparian province, Sindh. Understanding the intricate details of Punjab's ambitions and the ensuing controversy with Sindh is crucial to charting a sustainable future for Cholistan's unique treasures.

Punjab's Green Dreams

Punjab envisions a sprawling agricultural haven in Cholistan, fuelled by diverting floodwater from the Indus River system during the monsoon season. This ambitious plan, outlined in a presentation by the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) last year, involves constructing two massive barrages at Bahawalnagar and Hasilpur, boasting outputs of 0.34 million acre-feet (MAF) and 0.90 MAF, respectively. Additionally, a 195-kilometer Chaniot-Hasilpur link canal with a capacity of 15,000 cubic feet per second is proposed, along with an estimated cost of a staggering $2.54 billion. These ambitious infrastructural developments underscore Punjab's commitment to expanding its agricultural footprint in Cholistan, aiming to bring approximately 3.4 million acres of untapped land under cultivation.

In January, the Punjab government sought the issuance of a 'Water Availability Certificate' from the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), a crucial step for the extension of irrigated agriculture in Cholistan through a proposed link canal project. The envisioned project includes the construction of a feeder channel with a designed capacity of 4,122 cubic feet per second, originating from the Suleimanki Headworks. The target areas for water distribution are districts Bahawalnagar and Bahawalpur, with a gross command area of 696,651 acres and a cultivable command area of 610,237 acres.

Sindh's Reservations and the Looming Controversy

However, these "green dreams" have stirred apprehensions in Sindh, the lower riparian province on the Indus River. Sindh fears that Punjab's project will overuse water resources, potentially exceeding its Water Appropriation Accord (1991) allocations and jeopardizing their own water rights. Concerns about the existing canal capacity in Punjab exceeding its allocation add further fuel to these anxieties.

Beyond water scarcity, Sindh raises concerns about the lack of transparency and prior consultation in the decision-making process. Caretaker Chief Minister Justice Baqar, in a letter to the Prime Minister on January 29, emphasized the absence of dialogue and the potential social and economic unrest such a project could trigger in Sindh. The perceived "covert" strategy by IRSA to extend irrigated agriculture in Cholistan has further escalated tensions.

A Call for Collaboration and Smart Solutions

The controversy surrounding Cholistan's development underscores the need for a more inclusive and consultative approach, engaging all stakeholders, including Sindh. Recognizing the concerns of lower riparian provinces and adopting efficient irrigation techniques will be the key to achieving sustainable development.

Instead of pursuing large-scale water diversion projects, a shift towards smart agriculture utilizing the vast underground water reserves in Cholistan through efficient techniques like drip irrigation and precision farming offers a promising alternative. This approach promotes responsible growth, ensuring food security while safeguarding the region's ecological integrity and cultural treasures.

Recent hydrological assessments have unearthed a promising path for Cholistan's development. Beneath the arid surface lie substantial underground water resources, a hidden treasure waiting to be tapped responsibly. This discovery offers an alternative to large-scale water diversion projects, shifting the focus towards precision irrigation, efficient water management, and technology-driven farming practices, collectively known as smart agriculture. This approach draws inspiration from the past. The historical Hakra River, once lifeblood of the region, serves as a reminder of the potential for sustainable water management. 

By adopting smart agriculture, we can mitigate potential ecological hazards and ensure the long-term viability of Cholistan's scarce aquifers. This not only safeguards the environment but also paves the way for sustainable agricultural development, fostering prosperity without sacrificing the region's unique treasures.

Beyond Green Dreams

While Punjab's agricultural aspirations hold merit, neglecting Cholistan's cultural and historical richness would be a missed opportunity. Its seventeen forts, silent sentinels of a bygone era, stand as testaments to a vibrant past, beckoning travellers and history buffs. Each structure, with its unique design and purpose, offers a glimpse into the region's cultural tapestry.

Beyond history, Cholistan's vibrant rural life, woven with the largest livestock population in Pakistan, is a captivating testament to the nation’s cultural diversity. Witnessing the graceful gait of camels against the golden dunes, the rhythmic clanging of cowbells and the nomadic communities deeply connected to their land offers a connection to the region's soul.

The region also serves as a haven for nature enthusiasts. The majestic houbara bustard takes flight against the vast desert sky, captivating birdwatchers and photographers. The unique fauna, from elusive desert foxes to graceful chukar partridges, paints a picture of resilience and adaptation, reminding us of the delicate balance within the ecosystem.

Embracing a Sustainable Future

The decision regarding Cholistan's future shouldn't be limited to water and land; it's about defining the fate of a unique region. Choosing smart agriculture empowers us to embrace both agricultural dreams and cultural treasures. Let Cholistan's forts, its people, and its wildlife guide us towards a future where prosperity and preservation dance hand-in-hand, showcasing the world the true gem that lies beneath the desert sands.

By fostering open dialogue, collaboration, and adopting responsible water management practices and smart agriculture techniques, we can chart a sustainable course for Cholistan. This approach can unlock its agricultural potential while at the same time, preserve its ecological integrity and showcase its cultural treasures to the world, transforming Cholistan into a model for responsible tourism and development. Ultimately, the choice we make will shape the narrative of Cholistan for generations to come. Let us choose wisely, for the sake of its heritage, its environment, and its future as a thriving cultural and ecological destination.

The author is a policy analyst