Whether it pours down from the sky or spouts from the earth, water makes its own way to flow. This is all because of a natural phenomenon the modern science names gravity. But the discovery of laws of gravity is not as old as is man’s knowledge of the fact that water flows down along the slope. Like a Supreme Teacher, the Mother Nature has acquainted man with everything that may have been indispensable to his survival as well as growth on the planet. And, for extracting greater benefits from all these, the most sublime creation of the Almighty i.e. the humans, like intelligent pupils, not only discovered all the methods and principles compatible to nature’s system, but also made prudent use of those. Hence, the nature remained benevolent on man and he kept on making the most of His bounties. But, as human needs kept on increasing, this system of harmony got weakened and environment-friendly ways based on popular wisdom slowly yet gradually kept on becoming a story of the bygone days only to be replaced by such modern techniques which spurred an overuse of the natural resources. Similar was the case with Balochistan’s ancient water channel system commonly known as Karez.
The word “Karez” owes its origin to the Persian language and is synonymous with another Persian word Qanat. It denotes a water supply system that is almost three millennia old and serves as an undeniable proof of the consummate diligence and intelligence that humans have been endowed with.
To fulfil his needs, man made an optimal use of this wisdom and developed such innovative water supply systems which are not only compatible with indigenous conditions and natural system but in caring for which he was not alone but the nearby people were also included to do the task and to arouse a sense of common ownership in them to ensure that the efficacy and efficiency of the system remains intact.
The Karez system got originated from north-western Iran from where it spread toward China along the Silk Route and diffused toward West to be adopted in North Africa, Cyprus, Canary Islands and Spain. Even today, according to Dr Tanvir Arif of Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE), the system of irrigation through Karez is prevalent in at least 22 countries and it has 20 different names. These countries include China, Chile, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine and some North African and Arab countries.
In Pakistan, the Karez system is only found in Balochistan and a whole region of the province is known as Karezat. This system is a true engineering feat in itself. Historically, Karez system has been pervasive in Balochistan for almost one thousand years and a strong proof of this is the Karezes found during the excavations at Makran.
In terms of irrigation means, Karezes can rightly be called Balochistan’s underground canal system and this system is more prevalent in mountainous terrain of the province from where the water, coming from springs and cascades in the mountains, is supplied miles away to fulfil the water needs of the people.
For constructing a Karez, the first well, often called ‘Mother Well, is dug as collector of the aquifer waters at the feet of the hill along the slope. Then a tunnel is dug alongside the slope to reach the water table. The mother well is some 50 feet deep, and penetrates the water table to draw water. Besides mother wells, there are four underground tunnels down-stream of the mother well which also penetrate the water table horizontally and draw water from the saturated strata and feed the main Karez.
In a similar way, many wells are dug and then are interconnected through a tunnel. In the first wells of this chain, there are springs of water which keep on gushing and the water keeps on flowing toward the other wells. The level of Karez keeps on nearing the earth level and at a certain point they both have equal level.
Through these wells, the Karezes are every now and then cleaned — Karez needs cleaning and maintenance once in a year and for this purpose, every shareholder provides his services as labour or money according to his shares of water — and through these wells sunlight and fresh air do also reach to these tunnels — a phenomenon indispensable to keep the water uncontaminated. Moreover, these wells efficiently tab the rainwater. The Karez system is extremely useful especially for those areas where there is only a limited capacity of water storage and its supply and where the climate is hot and dry due to which the process of vaporization is faster. The underground Karez tunnels make the best source of water supply and also of storage of well water. This underground infrastructure keeps water safe from the direct heat of the sun due to which the vaporization slows and water is supplied to the end consumer without any substantial waste.
As per the Balochistan Conservation Strategy (BCS), Karez systems are usually constructed on a communal basis. A Karez is owned by shares, each representing the amount of time that water is available for irrigation purposes. Typically they yield up to 200 litres per second and serve a maximum of 200 shareholding families. An average Karez can easily irrigate 10–20 hectares of agricultural land. The distribution and ascertainment of the right to use water is done using a community partnership approach and each shareholder is considered the sole owner of the water of his share. These shares may, in turn, be rented out and are often fragmented into very small units. Unfortunately, internationally sponsored irrigation surveys in the 1970s viewed the Karez as traditional and outmoded, and not amenable to updating. This was the time when the use of tube wells, run on diesel fuel, had become common effecting an abundant availability of water.
And, after the 1970s, when people started reaping huge development benefits of electricity and the machines run by it, the system of Karez too started moving toward its demise. The influx, and then unplanned growth of, electricity-run tube-wells adversely impacted the underground water – table and people too began turning away from the Karez system and soon majority of the Karezes in Balochistan started drying up. A long drought between 1988 and 2006 also aggravated the already precarious situation.
A survey conducted by the Balochistan government’s Department of Irrigation and Power regarding the number of Karezes in the province pointed out that during the drought period, there were 1146 Karezes in Balochistan. But, there is a sheer lack of authentic figures as regards the matter that how many of them were functional during that period and what is the state of affairs today. At present, the existence of the Karezes is under a grave threat of extinction only due to carelessness and recklessness of the common people and installation of tube – wells on the mother wells.
Although the law prohibits the installing of a tube – well within an area of 500 metres from the Karez, yet the implementation of this law, like many other pieces of legislation, has also been put on the backburner. Adding fuel to the fire was the installing of more and more tube-wells only to extract maximum water due to which the underground water – tables, slowly, but gradually, kept on depleting while the number of tube-wells kept on increasing. The gravity of situation can be assessed from the following figures:
During 1973-74, there were only 2377 tube-wells in the province. This number soared up to 31794 in 2002-03 and till 2013-14, this number had reached 42542 which means that during the 1973-2004, there had been a whopping increase of 1690 percent in the number of tube-wells installed in Balochistan. Another aspect in the rise of number of tube-wells in Balochistan reveals that between 1991-92 and 2013-14, the agricultural connections (consumers) has risen by 208 percent to reach 28630 from 9300 during the said period. And, at present 39 percent of Balochistan’s arable area is being irrigated with the help of tube-wells; it was 32 percent up till 2002-03. The total area being irrigated at present through Karezes is only 4.55 percent as compared with 10.27 percent in 2002-03.
Owing to its geographical location, the Balochistan province, due to lesser rains and less snowfall, experiences 2-3 years of drought almost every decade. And this continual drought and little snowfall have aggravated the situation of availability of underground water. Since due to low rainfall and limited underground water-storage capacity impede the renewal of water resources while the process of extracting water from the soil is going on unchecked and it is further depleting the underground water table.
According to a report entitled “Water for Balochistan, Policy Briefings” — a document related to a project of the Government of Balochistan in collaboration with Asian Development Bank and Royal Government of the Netherlands — the average annual groundwater recharge in Balochistan is 2.21 billion cubic metres whereas during 2006-07, nearly 2.659 billion cubic metres water was extracted from the earth. This means that almost 0.459 billion cubic metres extra water was extracted. These facts are sufficient to prove that in Balochistan, underground water is being excessively drawn out and it is causing an annual fall of 1 to 3 metres in the underground water table.
It is also having a direct impact on the Karezes of the province and availability of Karez water for agriculture, livestock, forestry and, above all, for human use is steeply falling. The situation further highlights the significance of Karezes.
The World Bank, in one of its reports, has also reinforced this fact and has stated that given the peculiar geographical conditions and climate of the Balochistan province, the system of Karezes is highly effective. Resultantly, the process of revitalizing the Karezes in Balochistan has already started. In this regard, the work by a non-governmental organization (NGO) namely SPO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is really commendable. Moreover many other NGOs and the Balochistan government are also diligently and vigorously working on the revival of Karez system. The local populace too has also heartily welcomed these developments.
The system of Karezes serves like a backbone of the social and economic system of Balochistan. But, sadly, this highly efficient water supply system which also has the capacity to work for many centuries is one the verge of collapse only due to our negligence and slackness. And the time to do what we intend to for its revival is now. Otherwise we may not find any chance to expiate this ‘sin’ we are continuously committing.