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Indigenous Appropriation Mechanisms of Irrigation in Eastern Hindu Kush: A Study of Village Kushum Chitral Northern Pakistan.

Byline: Fazlur-Rahman Iffat Tabassum and Zahir Ahmad


For the last more two decades irrigation water has been one of the main focuses of scientific research in the Himalaya- Karakorum - Hindu Kush region. These studies have been conducted on local and regional levels and various aspects including irrigation infrastructure development locally formulated management and utilization systems and associated responsibilities have been discussed. In the present study an attempt is made to highlight the water appropriation mechanism in acute water scarcity situation at a micro level. Data for this research have been collected through participant observation unstructured interviews and focused group discussion with the shareholders. The research results reveal that the traditional water distribution mechanisms among the settlement sections are unbiased and based on equity.

Moreover the local inhabitants have given proper importance to the biophysical and climatic factors in the seasonal rationing of water between the upper and lower parts of the village. However with the passage of time due to demographic development shares of the individual households has decreased substantially.

Keywords: Traditional water management; indigenous appropriation systems; combined mountain agriculture; water sharing


For the last more than two decades traditional irrigation system and associated issues have been the main focus of scientific research in the Himalaya Karakorum and Hindu Kush region (Allan 1986; Kreutzmann 1998 2000; Israr-ud-Din 1992 1996; Gutschow 1998; Schmidt 2004; Lee 2007; NA1/4sser et al. 2012 and Ahmad 2014). Research studies were also conducted to determine the potentials constraints and status of water availability in a climate change scenario in mountainous environment at different levels (cf. Archer et al. 2010; Immerzeel et al. 2010 Daniel Pinel and Brooks 2013 Verzijl and Quispe 2013 and Delgado and Vincent 2013). All the major rivers of South Asia are originating from Himalaya Karakorum and Hindu Kush region predominantly fed by glaciers. They are not only providing water to the mountain oases' but the entire population (6937 million) of plains also depend on it for irrigation and power generation (Kreutzmann 1988 2006; Immerzeel et al. 2010).

In the extremely arid milieu of the Eastern Hindu Kush farming activities heavily depend on irrigation. The acreage under rain-fed agriculture (lalmi) is very limited and localized in the southern part of Chitral (cf. Haserodt 1989 1996 and Israr- ud-Din 1996: 19). Due to topographical constraints the main rivers in the region have very limited utility and the tributary streams and seasonal torrents are the main sources of irrigation (cf. Haserodt 1989; Israr-ud-Din 1996 2000 and Baig 1997). Generally the availability of irrigation water varies depending on location terrain conditions timing and actual amount of snowfall. December and January snowfall is highly appreciated by the villagers as a potential water source for the forthcoming cropping season (Whitemann 1988 and Fazlur-Rahman 2006 2007).

The agro-pastoral economy in Chitral heavily depends on the availability of irrigation water (Staley 1969; Haserodt 1989; Khan et al. 1994; Cacopardo and Cacopardo 2001; Fazlur-Rahman 2007; Holdschlag 2011; NA1/4sser et al. 2012). The economic importance of irrigation water can be judged from the fact that former rules had often used it as a bargaining commodity for gaining political favor. According to Baig (1997: 157) [] local water resources used for irrigation were highly valued coveted by various factions of the society as well as by clans and powerful individuals according to their access to the ruling court. The Chitral princes used lands and water resources as bait to lure powerful tribes or their chiefs for political reasons."

Like other localities in the northern mountainous belt of Pakistan in Chitral irrigation infrastructures had been developed by the local inhabitants and they operate and maintain almost 95 percent of the irrigation channels (Israr-ud-Din 1992: 122). For efficient management and utilization of water resources the villagers have developed social organizations and formulated rules. With the passage of time water management and related responsibilities became an integral part of the traditional knowledge.

Materials and Method

For this research necessary data were collected in 2009 and 2012 by conducting fieldworks in Kushum village. An unstructured interview was conducted with the village elders and relevant information regarding the allocation of irrigation water to each village section were properly recorded. This provided a general picture of water distribution among the sub-sections of the village/settlement unit in the study area. The system was quite difficult to understand therefore detail discussion was conducted with the individual stakeholders who usually supervise the appropriation system and mediating at the time of conflict resolution. At least one shareholder from every irrigation system was thoroughly interviewed to understand the household shares and adopted management mechanisms of irrigation water in that sub-system. The entitlement of the individual households to the amount of water and its duration vary seasonally.

Therefore special attention was paid to get information on the seasonal variation and use of water shares in different parts of the villages. Since both of them are very closely associated with number of users and in many cases entitlements were very little and not enough for the owners' own requirements. In such cases a secondary turn system has been established within the main cycle. To properly understand and appreciate water management and utilization at micro level detail information were collected from a small hamlet. Though the entire process of water allocation and sharing system was very complicated and exactly reflect the notions of Robert Netting (1974) that the system nobody knows" and Verzijl and Quispe (2013) that the System Nobody Sees" therefore for detailed analysis only a single case study has been presented.

Physical and Anthropogenic Characteristics of Kushum

The study area is located in the sub-tehsil of Mulkhow about 100 kilometers towards the North West of Chitral town. Kushum village is located on the Mulkhow-Terich divide and having southern exposure. It consists of a number of hamlets dispersed over the entire area. Similar to other mountainous villages verticality is one of the major characteristics of the study that ranges from 2050 meters at the banks of Mulkhow River to more than 3660 meters above mean sea level the crest of the watershed (Fig 1). The inhabitants of this village are practicing combined mountain agriculture (cf. Ehlers and Kreutzmann 2000) and skillfully integrated the spatially separated and seasonally productive resources (cf. Ehlers 1995 1996 1997) with the establishment of summer settlements and houses at various elevations. The availability of arable land is not a problem but water availability is one of the main constraints for bringing more land under plough as well as cultivating suitable crops.

The whole Mulkhow sub-tehsil suffers water scarcity and in the 1990s suffered from prolonged drought. Soil is fertile and a number of food and fodder crops are grown in the study area however yield and production is highly dependent on the availability of water during the cropping season. Entitlements to irrigation water widely vary from village to village and within the village there is also disparity among the households. Though this area receives relatively more snowfall during the winter season nevertheless the southern exposure accelerates snowmelt in early spring season.

The main sources of irrigation water in the study area are two springs which are providing more than 90% of the irrigation water to the village. Snowmelt has a very little share due to its topographical character. The water from its source to the village flow for about 5 kilometers in a stony watercourse and a substantial amount is lost due to seepage and evaporation. The total amount of water is 2 Khorarogh and is equal to 6 cusecs (Text Box 1). The stream divides the study area into two micro relief sections locally known as Pakhtori (the western part) and Nichagh is towards the east. Both Pakhtori and Nichagh are further subdivided into two sections i.e. lower Pakhtori (2170 meters amsl) and upper Pakhtori (2930 meters amsl). A number of small hamlets have been established in each section of the village.

The settlement pattern is dispersed and most of the houses have been constructed close to the cultivated land (cf. Fig 1). Irrigation water is initially distributed based on these micro-physiographic units.

Text Box 1: Locally used measurement units of irrigation water

Usually the villagers use local measurement units for measuring irrigation water in a steam or irrigation channel. The thumb rule that is used throughout Chitral is Khorarogh. According to Israr-ud-Din (1992: 126) The discharge of water in a [irrigation] channel is measured in terms of the amount needed to run a water mill. This measurement varies from place to place because of the size of the mill-stone. However the average measurement of one mill (Sig!) water [] will be approximately 3 cusecs." In the study area water is equally divided into a number of gologh and allocated to a group of households. The amount of gologh is not measured by any instrument rather assessed by eyes. The volume of gologh varies seasonally depending on the availability of water at the headworks (Baig 1997: 171). Actually the owners of a gologh provide labour for channel maintenance and also pay the watchman (Merjoi) in cash or kind based on the agreement.

Moreover based on visual assessment the inhabitants of the study area further subdivide the water-unit. According to them 10 gospanogh are equal to one chakhtogh 2 chakhtoghare equal to 1 gologh and 6 gologh are equal to 1 khorarogh or approximately 03 cusecs.

To get maximum benefit from the available natural resources the inhabitants of this village practice seasonal movement. Both fields and houses have been established in all the suitable areas where water availability coincides with a small piece of flat land. Only 8 per cent of the households have a single house whereas 61 per cent households have double and 31 per cent have triple houses within the territorial limits of the village. Most of the seasonal settlements are with cultivation however in the higher altitudes where climatic conditions are favorable for crop cultivation many summer settlements have been established exclusively for seasonal livestock grazing.

The southern exposure makes the whole area relatively warmer during the winter season. Though this area receives relatively more snowfall during the winter season from the western disturbances however the rapid increase of temperature during the spring season accelerate snowmelt. Temperature remains high during the whole summer season and that increases the demand of water for the irrigated plantations as well as cereal and fodder crops. The absence of any vegetation cover in most parts of the area also increases the evaporation rate and a considerable amount of water is lost before reaching the fields. Additionally the stony nature of the soil also absorbs the amount of runoff in the stream. The combined effect of physiography exposure settlement pattern location of fields and nature of soil put tremendous pressure on already scarce water resources.

Population of the study is increasing quite rapidly. According to the census of 1961 the total population of the village was 1629 persons that increased to 3194 in 1981; it means that it took almost 20 years to double the population. During the inter-censual period 1981-98 the annual average growth remained low (1.37%) and the total population was 3938 persons. Due to scarcity of water and land sliding out migration is quite high and people of this village can be met with in the whole Chitral and in the lowland urban centers. The inhabitants also participate in the seasonal out-migration to the lowland urban centers for three to five months during the winter. Moreover a number of households do have their family members in the Middle East. They are regularly sending remittances to their families. With the passage of time employment opportunities in the off-farm sector has also increased.

Nevertheless agriculture and animal husbandry are still the main economic activities practiced in the study area.

Results and Discussions

This study reveals that the important considerations in the local appropriation of irrigation water are to maintain equity and avoid conflicts amongst the co-owners. To achieve these goals the co-owners have successfully divided irrigation water without any biasness with the installation of Nerwals at appropriate places on permanent basis. However considering the historical ownership of resources in the former feudal state of Chitral (Lockhart and Woodthorpe 1889; Durand 1899; Schomberg 1938; Haserodt 1989) and the social structure of the inhabitants (Biddulph 1880; General Staff India 1928 Eggert 1990) and the innervations of the local rulers in resource ownership and management equity cannot be maintained properly. Thus similar to other localities in Chitral (cf. Israr-ud-Din 1992: 134; Baig 1997: 173; Shomberg 1935: 170) few families in the study area have special water rights. They have a specific unit of water locally known as Chakhtogh for the whole season.

Usually the local representatives of the former ruler (mehtar) or his nominee had granted these rights to the notables and influential households. In some cases such water rights were associated with land; however in certain circumstances only water rights have been conferred upon the household on request. These shares are usually for the entire cropping season and always taken out of the main channel before any formal distribution among the co- owners. Unlike the Khot valley where the amount of Chakhtogh is properly measured and the owner also have a specified duties (cf. Israr-ud-Din 1992: 134 2000: 68) in Kushum village neither the amount is determined and nor any responsibility is fixed on the owners. In the study area four village sections having this type of water rights i.e. Chakhtogh of Hoshi BalyanDur Koniz and Utropi.

The Chakhtogh of Hoshi is given from the main channel before formal distribution between the village sections (see below) and likewise the other Chakhtogh have been granted from the shares of Nichagh and Pakhtori (Fig 2).

Unlike the system practiced in Koht valley (Israr-ud-Din 1992: 134) and Kosht village (Israr-ud-Din 1996: 29) where Chakhtogh and Gologh are distributed through distribution-holes in the study area irrigation water is distributed through distribution-holes (Nerwal). For this purpose at the every distribution point a wooden plank with holes of equal diameter is fixed in the irrigation channel and water is equally divided without any biasness between/among the village sections (Photo 1). In the study area the available water is first divided between the two village sections i.e. Pakhtori and Nichagh following the same principle. To avoid overflow of water in the channel two secondary holes are also added (Fig 2).

Following this division the water of Nichagh is allocated to the village sections for irrigation. Each section has its own shares in the form of Sorogh and has their own system of management. However the share of Pakhtori is further subdivided into three equal parts by fixing another Nerwal (Photo 2) and the available water is divided among the three localities namely; Tosoon Bohchain and Thonio tack. Each of this division irrigates a number of hamlets and settlement sections (Fig 2).

Table1: Seasonal changes in the allocation of water to village sections in Kushum



(Ochio-ough)###Only day water is###Only night water is###Day water is used Night water

###used in this part to###used in this part to###in this part to###is used for

First irrigation Up to###irrigate the crops###irrigate the crops###irrigate the crops###irrigation to

25 June###trees and grasses.###plantation etc.###plantation etc.###irrigate the




Gologho-ough 25###Both day and night###This section of the

June-14 July###water are used in this###village has no water

###part of the village###during this period###-do-###-do-

Golo-Sorogh###Both day and###48 hours

###night water are###water both

14 July to 10###-do-###-do-###used in this###day and

September###locality except for###night on

###48 hours###every 9th

###day is used

###to irrigate this


Kishmao-ough10###Both day and###No water in

September to 5###night water is###this section of

November###-do-###-do-###used in this area###the village

Kishmano-ough 5###No water in this###Both day and night###No water in this###Both day and

November to end of###locality###water is used to###region###night water is

December###irrigate the field###used to

###before plowing###irrigate the

###field before


January to March/###Due to low temperature agricultural activities cease and irrigation water is no more

April###needed in the whole village. It is free and few households irrigate their filed and

###orchards to increase soil moisture and preserve it for early spring.

After proper and unbiased appropriation of water among the main village sections the allocation of shares and utilization of irrigation water begins. This system very closely follows the cropping season and based on the actual need of the co-owners.

For efficient utilization the irrigation water of Pakhtori and Nichagh is once again divided into day and night water. The allocation of the day and night water to upper and lower parts of the main village sections Nichagh and Pakhtori also varies depending on the location of fields and cropping seasons. Special care is taken to minimize the water losses through evaporation. Therefore from the beginning of the irrigation season to the end the day and night water is exclusively used in upper or lower parts of the respective village sections (Table 1 above).

At the start of the irrigation season April to 25 June the day-water is used in the upper parts while the night water is in the lower parts of Nichagh and Pakhtori respectively. This is known as water for greenery or Ochio-ough which the co- owners ensure through a rotation system on turn basis according to their own shares. However after 25th June both day and night water of Pakhtori is exclusively used in the upper part till the first week of November and this is known as Gologho- ough. Whereas in the case of the share of Nichagh the lower part receives the night water and the upper part the day water till 14 July.. From mid-July to 10th September both day and night water is used in the upper part of Nichagh and the lower part receives 48 hours of water every 9th day and this water is called Golo- Sorogh (cf. Fig 2).

In the upper part of Nichagh due to high altitude the cultivation of winter crops begins in the month of September; therefore from 10th of September to the first week of November both day and night water is used in the upper part of Nichagh to irrigate the fields before sowing. Around 5th November the sowing of winter crops starts in the lower parts of the village sections and both day and night water are exclusively used in these parts of the respective village sections and this water is called sowing water or locally Kishmano-ough.

Water allocation to different section of the village is very closely associated with altitude and cropping season. In the beginning of the irrigation season water is needed both in the lower and upper parts of the village. The day water is allocated for the upper parts that are relatively closer to the water source and the lower parts are further away and night water is allocated to them to avoid evaporation in keeping the warm and arid milieu in consideration. However after the completion of harvest in the low lying neighborhoods irrigation water is diverted to the upper parts where higher altitude delays crop harvest. Nevertheless to irrigate orchards and plantations a fixed amount of water is allowed to flow to the lower part. The arrangement remains in vogue up to the month of November when sowing of winter crop is completed there.

Since then irrigation water is no more needed in the higher altitude neighborhoods and sowing season starts in the lower parts thus the available water is totally allocated to this part till December i.e. completion of sowing season of winter crops. In the beginning of the winter season irrigation water became free for all and similar to the practices in Ladakh (cf. Osmaston et. al. 1994) fallow land grasses and irrigated plantation are irrigated to conserve soil moisture and minimize soil erosion during the dry period.

At micro level the water shares and management mechanisms are quite complex and vary from one hamlet to another. Each unit has its own co-owners and independent system of water distribution. Appropriation rules and management mechanisms have been formulated in the past and these are successfully functioning for more than a century. However with the passage of time new owners are added due to the disintegration of the nuclear families and the shares of the household is decreasing both in amount and duration. For smooth running of the system and minimize conflicts the shares of the co-owners are strictly maintained. Conflicts arise among the users usually during the autumn sowing season mainly because of increasing demand and decreasing volume of water in the irrigation channel.

However such disputes are resolved locally. To highlight the traditional management system as a response of the local inhabitants to decreasing water shares a case study of a Chakhtogh is presented below in detail.

Case Study of Khoniz

Khoniz is one of the oldest hamlets of Kushum. It is located in the center of the main village and 34 households inhabit this hamlet. The total population was 250 persons in 2009. Unlike other hamlets of Kushum where majority of the households participate in the seasonal movement very few households from this village move to the high altitude summer settlements. The year-round availability of water is one of the main reasons.

The main source of irrigation water for this hamlet is a Chakhtoghthat is diverted from the water of Nichagh. Additionally spring water is also added to it on the way to the hamlet. The irrigation channel taken out from Nichagh is about 8-kilometers long. Similar to all other irrigation channels and distributaries it is also unlined and almost half of the total amount of water is lost on the way due to seepage and evaporation. This structure needs annual and emergency repair and that is done by the shareholder on pre-formulated rules based on their water shares. However both the topography of the village and layout of the channel is quite safe except landslides and silting in few sections; the irrigators face no other problem. Usually the channel is repaired before the beginning of the irrigation season in the first week of April. All the co-owners provide labor based on their water shares for this repair and following the necessary maintenance work; irrigation activities begin in the village.

The water of Khoniz is initially divided into six-day cycle or six Soroghs of 24-hour duration and the co-owners irrigate their fields and plantation on turn basis. It seems likely that at the very initial stage there would have been only six households in that hamlet. However with the passage of time the number of shareholder increased disproportionately (Figure 3). Consequently except one household the water shares of others decreased in terms of duration and quantity. At the time of fieldwork shares of the households varied from a maximum of 24 hours to a minimum of only 45 minutes in the six-day cycle. Only 12 per cent of the households have more than 12 hours water share and more than 35 percent have less than one-hour in the six-day cycle. It means that for majority of households the duration of water shares are not enough even to irrigate a single field at the time of severe water shortage in the channel.

Therefore the decedents of the principal owner 1 and 6 have reorganized their shares and started their own rotation system. Thus they have increased their respective shares at the cost of duration. Now four households are getting less than two hours of water shares in 12 days and 11 households are receiving less than 2 hours in 24 days (Figure 3). These households have blood relationship and usually cooperate with each other in a reciprocal way. Moreover most of them also have water rights in other parts of the village and they also exchange their shares at the time of emergency. Thus the respondents have reported minor conflicts among the co-sharing households. However water related conflicts are seldom taken to the court of law rather solved locally through arbitration.


This study highlights the coping mechanisms adopted by the mountain farmers in response to an acute scarcity of irrigation water. The diurnal and seasonal allocation of water to different sections of the village is one of the creative adjustments to sustain livelihood in a harsh environment. The traditional appropriation system that is in practice for the last many generations is unbiased and equity is maintained amongst the village sections and consequently conflict potential has been reduced to the minimum possible level. Nevertheless the shares of the co-owners are decreasing both in terms of duration and quantity due to demographic development and disintegration of nuclear families. Similar to other localities in the Hindu Kush (Fazlur-Rahman 2009) and Karakorum (Ehlers 2008) locally available resources are under huge stress.

Therefore any future changes in precipitation pattern can not only transform water availability but also jeopardizes the livelihood strategies and food security of the local population.


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Author:Tabassum, Fazlur-Rahman Iffat; Ahmad, Zahir
Publication:The Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Aug 31, 2014
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