29 November 2002

PAKISTAN: Water channel gives new life to Bunji villagers

BUNJI, 29 Nov 2002 (IRIN) - Hundreds of villagers in a remote part of Pakistan's Northern Areas will soon be self-sufficient thanks to an irrigation project by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP).

"The government tried to build a water channel there, but it didn't last, and we were desperate to build another one," father-of-six Salahuddin told IRIN in Bunji, located in the Astor Valley, some 55 km south of Gilgit, the administrative capital of the Northern Areas. "There are very little jobs here, so this will be good for me and my family," he said.

"The channel will give these people a new lease of life," the AKRSP manager of the Astor Valley, Raja Safdar Khan, told IRIN in Bunji. "They are heavily reliant on basic food supplies which are brought in from the Punjab Province, but during the winter months they are cut off from the rest of the country, due to heavy snowfall on the roads," he added.

Established in the Northern Areas in 1982, AKRSP has helped villagers in nearby Gilgit and the Hunza valley in constructing water channels to irrigate land which would otherwise stand empty and barren. The region is one of the poorest in Pakistan.

"The people of Bunji approached us after they heard about our projects in other parts of the Northern Areas, and requested the same be done for them so they can cultivate land," Khan said.

An area of approximately 1,187 ha near to the village of Bunji, facing, Nanga Parbhat, Pakistan's second-highest peak, is to be turned into farmland, which will be watered through the seven-km channel. Serving 400 households, the canal will be the only source of water for irrigation. Each household will be entitled to nearly half a hectare.

At a cost of US $32,000, the villagers built the water channel themselves, with materials supplied by AKRSP. "We provided them with explosives and technical expertise," Khan said.

Completed in September 2002, the channel took four years to build, longer than expected due to erosion and landslides. "It was a hard task, but the villagers persevered because they wanted to make it happen," he observed.

Collecting water from the nearby Astor river, the channel will turn the land into a green oasis. A range of crops will be grown, including maize, potatoes, wheat, barley, fodder, forest and fruit trees. "Hopefully they will also have enough food to sell in the local market, so they can earn a good living from it," he added. The first crop will be ready for harvesting in March 2003.

"At last I will have my own land and will grow vegetables and wheat. This is like a dream come true," Mohammad Sadir, told IRIN. "We have a lot of problems in the winter, and we survive on whatever is available. Sometimes we eat potatoes all winter," he added.

The village of Bunji is under constant threat during the winter of being cut off from supplies if the Karakoram Highway, which links the Northern Areas to the rest of the country, is blocked.

Prior to the channel being built, the land was communal, but was of no use to villagers. Located some 20 km away, locals will walk up to an hour to the farmland every day to maintain it once the water flow starts in the new year.

There were fears that recent earthquakes in the Astor valley that affected up to 35,000 people could ruin efforts to irrigate the land. "Seismic activity is high in this area, but we think it is moving away from this farmland, so hopefully they won't be affected," Khan said. In addition to agriculture, the channel will also produce up to 70 kW of electricity.

AKRSP aims to focus on capacity building to prepare the ground for sustainable development. Programming also focuses on creating community forums, with 22,721 villagers trained in technical and vocational skills. "People carry forward their development agenda by participating in a range of forums which entitle them to access the governmental, NGO and private sectors," Khan said.

Over the years, AKRSP in the Northern Areas has been involved in some 2,356 infrastructure projects, including road construction and land development. In addition to this, the environment has also been protected by the planting of 2,343 forest trees and the supply of a better breed of livestock.

Meanwhile, the Bunji villagers are forever grateful for the new project. "I was herding goats before working on this channel, but now I will have my own business," Akil ul-Rehman, told IRIN. "We used to eat all our food and didn't save anything for the winter. But now that we will be growing our own crops we will have a much happier lifestyle."