In the north of Pakistan, the breathtaking Himalayan, Karakorum, and Hindu Kush mountain ranges meet. However, behind the region’s picturesque scenery lies a harsh reality. For its 1.9 million inhabitants, water is an extremely scarce resource. To many this region is known as the ‘vertical desert.’
The communities in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral (GBC) face an array of challenges stemming from the shortage of water. Limited access to clean drinking water has led to health issues, while the inability to irrigate crops has caused food insecurity. Moreover, the lack of economic opportunities resulting from the inability to grow cash crops or trees for construction purposes has kept some communities – especially the most remote – locked in a cycle of poverty. Climate change is only adding to their woes.
To help address this critical issue, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) has been working with thousands of communities across GBC. Over the last 40 years, communities have has constructed more than 1,500 irrigation channels irrigating 209,932 acres of land – the equivalent of 112,866 football (soccer) pitches. These efforts have benefited over 120,000 households, enabling them to secure access to clean water and arable land.
It is remarkable to think that the vast majority of these channels have been dug and constructed by hand using shovels and pick axes. Today, in easier to reach places bulldozers and excavator machines are used but in the harder to reach places, channels are still dug by hand. The communities themselves dig the channels with technical and materials inputs from AKRSP engineers.
As a result of these efforts, food security has improved, erosion has decreased due to the planting of trees, and new economic opportunities have emerged. These sustainable development initiatives have also encouraged community participation, empowering them to take charge of their own future.
But, the spectre of climate change looms large and the gains that have been made are under threat. Rising temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns make access to water even more limited, which is a significant concern. In response, AKRSP is exploring innovative approaches to water management, such as solar/electric lift irrigation schemes for block plantations, that can maximise the use of available water resources while minimising waste.
Jutal Block Plantation, an eco-friendly project in Gilgit, is an example of one such initiative. The project, which uses a solar pump to lift water, is benefiting a 1050ft area with and has supported the growth of 15,000 plants.
So far, AKRSP has planted 132,000 trees through solar lift irrigation in the region and the plan is to develop 78 solar/electric lift irrigation schemes for additional block plantations.
With continued innovation and community engagement, AKRSP will continue to evolve its approach to water access and management, ensuring that communities can secure this critical resource well into the future.
Written by Mustafa Kamal
The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme was established in 1982 by the Aga Khan Foundation to improve the quality of life in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. The overall goal of the organisation is to improve the socio-economic conditions of the people of northern Pakistan.
Explore more photos of AKRSP’s irrigation work in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral