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Comparative situations

The Indus River system was the first to be developed for perennial irrigation on a large scale. The same technology has since been used to develop other comparable river systems in South-west Asia and the Middle East: the Nile in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq, the Oxus and the smaller rivers of Soviet Central Asia, and most recently, the Helmand of Afghanistan. In each of these cases, there has been direct transfer of engineering skills and hydraulic theory, but apparently no transfer of ecological or social lessons learned concerning environmental problems or organization even though similar problems have recurred in each situation. This phenomenon can only be explained in terms of the perceptions of planners and the social structure in which they are embedded. The problem is illustrated in the cases of Iraq, Afghanistan and India.


Iraq is heir to a longer history of more intensive premodern irrigation than Pakistan. Modern development of the system began in 1913, based on experience in the Indus Valley, and was stepped up in the 1950s (See Dougrameji and Clor, 1977; and Fernea, 1970).

Irrigation had been practiced in the lower Mesopotamian plain since the sixth millennium BC, but the present social situation derives from the influx of tribal populations from the south in the 18th century. From then until very recently the large work forces necessary to operate and maintain the system were commanded by local tribal leaders.

The Mesopotamian system selected arable land for wheat and barley cultivation close to the rivers, and dug ditches to the Tigris and Euphrates to irrigate them. Despite a twoyear cropping cycle which left the land fallow for two summers after each winter cultivation, productivity was quickly impaired by increasing salinity, and the people moved regularly to new areas. By 1950, approximately 60 per cent of Iraq's agricultural land was estimated to be seriously affected by salinity; 20-30 per cent had been abandoned and the rate of loss was estimated at 1 per cent per year.

Throughout the seven thousand year history of this system under various populations, salinity had been a recurrent problem, which the traditional technology could not counteract except by long-term fallowing or abandonment. But this historical record appears not to have influenced the perceptions of modern development planners.

In the Greater Mussayeb Project, which was initiated by the government in 1953 approximately 90 km south of Baghdad, a modern irrigation and drainage network was installed and the land was classified and distributed in lots to tribesmen, many of whom (as in the case of the Indus Valley) had no previous experience of agriculture, let alone irrigation. An important aim of the project, once again, was social and political: to break the old tribal system and generate a population of independent farmers. However, by 1964, only ten years later, rise in soil salinity and siltation in the canals had led to migration of some of the settlers and almost to disintegration of the system. Apart from some technical problems - for instance, the radial gates to the head regulator had been fitted in the wrong position so that the heavy silt-laden water of the river's bottom layers had been drawn into the canal system - social problems were largely responsible for the failure. No attention had been paid to fitting the technology to the existing social forms or generating a social unit that would be structurally adaptive to the requirements of the new technology.

A rehabilitation project was begun in 1965 and considerable success has been achieved since then in developing the technical aspects of the system and providing services to the population. However, it is not clear that the greatly-increased population (32,000 in 1976 compared to 15,000 in 1965 and an estimated 1,000 in 1953) has generated more efficiency in agricultural practice. There is evidence to suggest that proximity to Baghdad (which enables technicians and administrators to make quick visits) and the consequent influence of urban values on local perceptions, may be largely responsible for some apparent success. No lessons from earlier experience have been applied to the problem of making earlier social problems more tractable in irrigation projects in more isolated areas.


Afghanistan provides the most sensational example of the disappointment of technological promise by ecological process (See Michel 1959, 1972). The watershed of the Helmand River comprises 40 per cent of the country. River flow depends on winter and early spring rains and summer melt, and is even more variable than the Indus. Before the Kajakai Dam was completed in 1953, providing a reservoir of 1,495,000 acre feet or 1,844 million cubic metres. capacity, the lowest recorded maximum natural flow was 1,620 cusecs on the 22nd July 1953; and the highest was 50,100 cusecs on the 26-27th April 1949.

Major modern engineering was begun only in the late 1940s by an American firm, Morrison Knudson, and since the 1950s has been sponsored by US AID. The aims of the project were the familiar mix of economic and political: to control and store the river flow, bring virgin lands under cultivation, settle nomads, and contribute to the solution of national problems created by border disputes with Pakistan and Iran.

So long as the development of irrigation was confined to the flood plains and interfluves, no serious problems developed. But in the 1960s the project was extended onto virgin lands. The fact that these lands were characterized by shallow soils over impermeable conglomerates was not taken into consideration. As might be expected, environmental problems similar to those experienced in the Indus Valley and Iraq developed, but more quickly. No significant attempt was made to prevent them. The new farmers were not sensitive to methods of irrigation and cultivation that would avoid or slow the development of environmental problems, and in the allotment of settlers to the newly-created resources no attention was given to their socially-and culturally-derived perceptions. These lands are now worthless for the cultivation of wheat or cotton, and are probably most useful for what they can teach in the long term about the technology of reclamation.


Perhaps the most interesting comparison with Pakistan is to be made with north-western India, which is not only a continuation of the same geographical and cultural zone but includes a significant part of the same river basin and is heir to the same history of irrigation development. However, despite the general historical, geographical, and cultural similarities, the Indian experience has diverged somewhat from that of Pakistan. There are a number of reaasons for this divergence: particularly, the differences between the Indian and Pakistani shares of the system at Partition, and as agreed in the Indus Waters Treaty (1960); the difference in potential for development of the two shares, both in terms of water capacity and accessible arable lands; and the difference in numbers of technicians with relevant skills on the two sides. It is also important to note that optimum exploitation of the Indus River system is much more important to the national economy of Pakistan than to that of India. Nevertheless, India made a major effort to maximize the potential benefit from her share of the Indus Rivers (the Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej). Significantly, however, her strategy was to extend her irrigation system as far as possible through Haryana and into Rajasthan in order to produce the maximum social impact at the national level by spreading it as far as possible, rather than aiming for the greatest economic impact, either nationally or at the local level, by optimising the supply of water to the nearest arable land. This policy decision was supported by the commitment to line all canals to reduce two of the major problems discussed above in relation to Pakistan: water loss through seepage and the related long-term rise in the water table causing waterlogging.

The Report of the National Commission of Agriculture (India 1976) acknowledges that the water supply in many canals already is inadequate for crop needs and that "on many irrigation systems the present mode of utilization of water is wasteful. On (pre-existing) unlined canals in the alluvial tracts, only about two-fifths of water released at the canal head is utilised by crops; the rest is lost in transit and in the field" (ibid., vol. 5, p. 10). However, elsewhere (p. 76) it is stated that in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, the state irrigation departments are "responsible for managing supplies right up to the field including distribution of water among the co-sharers on each outlet" which suggests that bureaucratic management systems play a more significant role in local ecological processes on the Indian than the Pakistani side.

Still, in India, too, waterlogging and salinity are significant problems. In Punjab and Haryana alone, 800,000 hectares are estimated to be affected. The report considers the most important cause of land degradation to be "wanton misuse and interference" (ibid. p. 178), and emphasises the importance of solving the associated social problems. It underlines the social significance of the problem by continuing: "it is not by coincidence alone that by and large the poor occupy these lands" (pp. 178-179), though it does not spell out the implications for the abilities and prospects of the poor or for public policy.

What is particularly interesting in the comparison of the Indian with the Pakistani experience, as with the other examples, is that even in a case where the developing country is relatively well endowed with experts, most of them trained in India, the development strategy is the same. The underlying philosophy, in fact, derives from the same Western tradition and is equally technocentric, rather than socio-centric. The general tenor of the report of the Indian National Commission suggests a faith in enforcement as ultimately the only answer to the environmental problems arising from irrigation. The communication gap between the expert and planner on the one hand and farmer on the other is as great or even greater than in countries where the experts are imported from the West. The lesson to be learned from this observation is important: the sociological problems of environment and development derive from class and other political differences within developing countries (which may or may not be related to exogenous influences such as Western education) as well as from cultural differences between local farmers and foreign experts.


II. Pastoralism on the iranian plateau

The case of Iran
The case of Afghanistan

The arid and semi-arid rangelands of the Iranian Plateau, in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, are also spectacular. But the spectacle lies in their vastness in relation to the sparseness of the resource they have to offer, not (as in the case of the Punjab) in their productivity per hectare. In fact the resource is important probably as much for its vastness as for its productivity. However, its present and potentially increased pastoral productivity is significant for the national economies, and for economic, sociocultural, and political development in each of the countries of the area. Furthermore, national as well as larger interests demand both that the vast steppe, semidesert and desert spaces that separate cities and smaller settlements in the region be domesticated, and that their sparsely distributed, isolated populations be integrated into national life and given the same opportunities as their fellow countrymen in the cities. The question here is one not so much of the potential for transformation of the resource as of the difference between rational use and nonuse.

The resource and the technology

Unlike the irrigation resource, which exists only in a limited number of well-defined locations, the pastoral resource is an uninterrupted expanse. Some 120 million hectares (out of 165 million) in Iran, 55 million (out of 65 million) in Afghanistan, and an only slightly smaller proportion in Pakistan are loosely classified as rangeland. Most of this vast area lies on the Plateau and, without irrigation, cannot be used efficiently for any food-production system other than pastoralism. If its pastoral use can be efficiently developed, not only will national and regional food production be greatly increased, but an extremely important contribution will be made to the socio-economic and cultural integration of significant sectors of the population of each country.

These areas have been used for pastoralism to varying extents for up to ten millennia, but pastoralism is accused of depleting the natural vegetation cover and causing permanent reduction in primary productivity, leading, in extreme cases, to erosion, sand accumultion, and dust storms that also affect the quality of urban life. It is often forgotten that, unlike the case of irrigation where most of the population has been imported, the existing pastoral population in these areas is - like the soil and vegetation an irreplaceable local resource. Over generations traditional pastoralists have built up an intimacy with the natural resource, and their use of it has modified it in such a way that they can now be said to be co-adapted. If this population were lost through migration, pastoral development would become considerably more difficult, because cultural values inhibit the movement of labour from the cities back out into rural areas, especially for shepherding. Both the natural and the human resource have suffered in recent decades from a negative attitude on the part of government, which has favoured farming to the detriment of pastoralism. This bias has led to the alienation of significant areas of rangeland for dry farming, even though pastoralism would be economically more productive in the long term.

The technology of traditional pastoralism has generally been assumed by development planners to be uncomplicated, and has received little attention. Anthropologists, who because of their choice of subject matter might have filled this gap, have in fact, with few exceptions, illuminated only the purely social and cultural aspects of the pastoral systems they have studied (See for example Barth 1961, Tapper 1979, and Equipe Ecologie et Anthropologie des Sociétés Pastorales 1979), without relating them to the problems and issues of ecology or, generally, even of development. Their work does, however, demonstrate that it is misleading to consider traditional pastoralism as a single form of land use. Our concept of pastoralism comprehends a wide range of variation of traditional practice. Within it we need to differentiate variation on a number of levels: natural conditions, availability and choice of suitable animal species and their ecology. market accessibility for their products, historical experience (especially of drought and war) and cultural values.

In order to make efficient use of natural grazing, which varies temporally and spatially according to season, topography and latitude, most forms of traditional pastoralism involve seasonal movement. The species of domesticated animal that pastoralism choose to herd (the usual range now is sheep, goats, and cattle; in most areas camels have largely disappeared) depends on natural conditions, on markets, and on cultural values. The decision to produce particular products depends on the same variables. Pastoralism - overall strategies, productivity, choice of products, and impact on the environment - should be evaluated in the light of these variables, which influence perception and attitudes to planned change. In the development record so far, however, recommendation of technologies or technological modifications has generally been based on considerations of alien experience of natural and economic variables, to the neglect of local experience and values. Although such recommendations may be valid for the natural resource if it were to be utilised by an alien population, they tend to be incompatible with the interests of the existing human resource - the people who run the risk of serious social, economic, and cultural disruption. This incompatibility would cause further decline in overall productivity.

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