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Exploring the Irrigation System in Pakistan

Aug 04,2023

The evolved irrigation system of Pakistan is the most important aspect of Pakistan’s economic growth. Because of its extensive network of canals, dams, and reservoirs, a large portion of the country's rural population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.

The significance of the irrigation system in Pakistan cannot be overstated. It plays a pivotal role in the country's agricultural sector and supports various other sectors of the economy, like GDP. 

The irrigation system also aids in flood control and water management. Pakistan is sensitive to seasonal floods, and well-designed canal systems can divert excess water away from densely populated areas, lessen the impact of floods, and protect communities and their assets.

History of Pakistan's Irrigation System

In ancient times, when irrigation systems in Pakistan were in their developing stages, they primarily relied on basic methods that demanded immense physical labor and dedication from the communities involved in agriculture. From sunrise to sunset, farmers work tirelessly to harness the life-giving waters of the rivers and divert them to their fields.

These early irrigation methods were characterized by manual labor and inventive techniques. Farmers would dig canals by hand, creating channels that would direct water from nearby rivers and streams to their crops. These canals required constant maintenance to prevent erosion and ensure a consistent flow of water.

Moreover, the history of irrigation systems in Pakistan is closely related to the history of the country itself. At first, it was complex because of the geography of the country. Later on, it became more efficiently organized as technological advances were made, and the rulers of the time encouraged it.

The practice of irrigation in Pakistan has evolved over time. Starting with the advanced techniques of the Indus Valley Civilization, various empires, and cultures have taken control and improved the irrigation systems, leaving their own unique mark. Let's take a closer look at how these civilizations have contributed to shaping Pakistan's irrigation legacy.

Indus Valley Civilization

Pakistan has a rich history of ancient cultures like the Indus Valley Civilization,  which flourished around 2500 BC, is the oldest in South Asia, and was the first to develop a sophisticated irrigation system. The system was built on a network of canals and irrigation channels from the Indus River and its tributaries.

Colonial Period

During the reign of Muslim rulers, the irrigation system that was being used during the Indus Valley Civilization was improved upon. Different Muslim rulers brought a variety of irrigation systems, like dams and canal irrigation, which used canals to direct water from nearby rivers and streams to their crops. Afterward, the British colonialists developed and modified the existing irrigation system further. The construction of barrages like Sukkur and Taunsa was also an achievement of the British colonialists.

Post-Independence Initiatives

After the independence of Pakistan in 1947, the government was still making efforts to further improve the irrigation system of the country. Therefore, the Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS) was built. The IBIS comprised major reservoirs like Tarbela, Mangla, and Chashma, along with their associated canals.

The Water Sharing Agreement

The Indus River Commission (IRC) was established in 1960 between India and Pakistan. The IRC was responsible for ensuring equitable sharing of the waters of the Indus River and its tributaries between India and Pakistan. According to the agreement, India was granted the right to use the Bias, Ravi, and Sutlej rivers. While Pakistan was given the right to use the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab rivers.

Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS) in Pakistan

The world’s most complex and contiguous irrigation system is IBIS in Pakistan, which was inherited in 1947 by British engineers. The system capitalizes on the waters of the mighty Indus River and its tributaries, catering to the water requirements of millions of hectares of farmland. It comprises major reservoirs like Tarbela, Mangla, and Chashma, which provide storage capacity during surplus periods, ensuring a consistent water supply during dry spells.

Water Sources of IBIS

The large catchment area of the Indus River basin, along with significant reservoirs like Tarbela and Mangla dams, provides a substantial water supply for irrigation. Water availability is managed through an intricate network of canals, distributaries, and watercourses. However, factors such as climate change, rainfall variations, upstream water use, and water-sharing agreements can affect water availability.

Major Reservoirs in IBIS

Along the river Indus and its tributaries, there are three major reservoirs. These are Tarbela, Mangla, and Chashma, which are responsible for the storage of water during dry periods. They also ensure the smooth flow of water if there is a sudden rise in the water level.

Tarbela Dam, which is constructed on the river Indus in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Mangla Dam, on the river Jhelum in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, are the two most crucial reservoirs in Pakistan. Chashma Barrage helps to regulate the water flow and the amount of water that is released to various canal systems within IBIS.

Canal Network within IBIS

The canal irrigation system in Pakistan is the largest of its kind in the world. These canals are further categorized into three categories:

  • Main Canals:

The main canals, such as the Upper Bari Doab Canal and the Lower Chenab Canal, serve as the primary arteries for water distribution, delivering water to large areas.

  • Branch Canals:

Branch canals branch off from the main channels and distribute water to major and minor areas.

  • Watercourses:

Branch canals branch off from the main channels and distribute water to smaller areas, such as villages, or directly to the fields.

The Pakistan Canal System is undoubtedly one of the most efficient and extensive irrigation systems that covers the areas of Punjab and Sindh. The canal network within IBIS expands further with arteries that are connected to the main canals. However, the farmers are allocated a period to get equal water distribution.

Types of Irrigation Systems in Pakistan

The irrigation system of Pakistan is a combination of traditional and modern techniques that are being used to get the most productive outcomes. These types of irrigation systems used in Pakistan are:

Traditional Technique: Ground Water Extraction or Tubewell

The process of extracting and then utilizing underground water for irrigation purposes is one of the most widely used and oldest irrigation systems in Pakistan. Tube wells are deep wells that are drilled into underground aquifers to access groundwater.

They are equipped with electric or diesel pumps to lift water to the surface and distribute it through a network of pipes or channels. However, overuse can lead to groundwater depletion and declining water tables. The risk of salinization and water quality degradation requires energy for pumping, which can be costly.

Modern Technique: 

  • Drip Irrigation

To reduce water waste, drip irrigation is used in Pakistan. This method is efficient as it only supplies the amount of water required by the plant. It involves using a network of tubes or pipes with small emitters or drippers placed near the plant roots. Precise application of water and nutrients, promoting better plant health. It is Suitable for a wide range of crops. Potential for increased crop yields and water savings. This modern technique requires proper maintenance and management; otherwise, clogging of emitters can occur if water quality is poor.

  • Sprinkler Irrigation

The modern irrigation method inspired by the rainfall pattern is getting popular in Pakistan, with a majority of farmers adopting it. The water is distributed through high-pressure sprinklers mounted on above-ground pipes. Sprinkler irrigation provides widespread coverage, making it suitable for larger fields. The wide coverage and uniform distribution of water are suitable for various crop types and can also be used for frost protection and cooling in certain cases.

  • Lining Canals and Water Courses

This technique helps reduce seepage losses, which occur when water infiltrates through the soil and is lost before reaching the intended irrigation areas. Lining the canals and watercourses prevents water seepage, ensuring more efficient delivery of water to the fields. It also helps in maintaining water levels and reducing the risk of waterlogging and salinization in surrounding areas.

  • Integration of Remote Sensing Techniques

The integration of remote sensing technologies has made it easier for farmers to analyze the data collected from their fields. This data includes information such as the type of crops being grown, the area of cultivation, the yield, the soil type, and the moisture content. With this modern technology, farmers and researchers are now able to make informed decisions. 

  • Solar Powered Irrigation

The rise in demand for solar panels has created an opportunity for farmers to use the energy from the sun to power their irrigation systems. Hence, this new technology has both sides and focusing on the fundamental advantages of solar energy is necessary to be able to make the most of it.

The power irrigation method has gained popularity because of the sustainable benefits it offers farmers. The cost-effective way has replaced the use of diesel pumps. The increased accessibility for remote areas without reliable electricity supplies contributes to sustainable water pumping, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and provides farmers with a more environmentally friendly and affordable option for irrigation.

Adoption of Precision Agriculture

In Pakistan, precision agriculture practices are being adopted to optimize water and resource management. This includes using yield mapping, soil moisture sensors, and crop water stress indicators to tailor irrigation schedules and apply water precisely where and when needed.  

  • Integration of Sensors

Smart irrigation systems employ various sensors, such as soil moisture sensors, weather sensors, and crop sensors, to collect data on soil conditions, weather patterns, and crop water requirements. These sensors provide real-time information on soil moisture levels, temperature, humidity, and other relevant parameters.

  • Data Analytics

The data collected from the remote monitoring systems are then used to make informed decisions. Advanced analytics algorithms analyze the data to generate insights and recommendations for efficient irrigation management. By utilizing historical data, predictive analytics can forecast future water requirements.

  • Remote Monitoring

Remote monitoring helps the farmers and the research managers keep an eye on the fields remotely. Wireless connectivity enables real-time monitoring of water flow rates, system performance, and soil moisture levels. This information can be accessed through web-based platforms or mobile applications, providing users with up-to-date data and alerts.

  • Mobile Application

With every possible advancement in the irrigation sector of Pakistan, the traditional methods of checking the fields are now approachable on mobile phones. Allowing the farmers to check on the condition of their crops has not only saved time but has also proven to be beneficial. The key features of these applications are:

  • Real-time data and insights
  • Automated alerts and recommendations
  • Water usage and tracking
  • Knowledge sharing and resources


The Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS) is the most crucial element of the agriculture sector in Pakistan. The extensive network of canals and reservoirs provides water to a large number of irrigated areas. The efficiency of the network and regular improvements reflect the government's commitment to sustainable water management and agricultural prosperity. However, the IBIS is not fully optimized and could face challenges that are addressed by the use of technologies and IoT. Through regular and effective monitoring of the system, it is possible to improve its efficiency and make it more responsive to the needs of farmers.

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