Pakistan’s province of Sindh contributes around 85% of red chilli production in the country, the fourth largest producer of red chillies after India, China and Mexico. In fact, the nearby town of Kunri was once known as the ‘chilli capital of Asia’ and still has the country’s biggest chilli bazaar in Pakistan. Nearly 70% of the rural population in Sindh work in the agriculture and livestock sector.
“The sandy soil in the coastal belt of Pakistan and the dry climate is perfect for growing chillis,” said Rashid Maher, spokesperson of the Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority. Maher is the general manager of the Area Water Board for the Nara Canal, running for about 355 kilometres. “The coastal belt where chilli grows best also happens to be at the tail-end of the Nara canal,” he said. The crop requires less water than other crops, but more frequent watering (every 15 days).
“But due to the rotational system for distribution of available water in the irrigation system, more popularly known as warabandi, the water did not get to the farmers until the end of the third week, and the plants wilted and died before fruition,” explained Maher.
This is a big loss, as chillis are quite profitable. “A farmer with a 25 acre field can make more profit growing chilli than cotton,” Maher said. Today a 40 kg sack of dried chillies will fetch the farmer PKR 10,000 ($75).
This year, despite perfect weather conditions, chilli production has plummeted because of a lack of water for irrigation. This has been as massive let down for the estimated 160,000 chilli growers in Kunri alone.
Dawn.com reported on the claim by local farmers that “the more influential farmers somehow, always get enough water and at the right time.”
The lands in upper region, also demanding water from the same source, are owned by the “more influential people, including those in the parliament, in the army and the bureaucrats”. Water-starved farmers claim these factions use illegal machines to draw and pump water from the canal and its distributaries. A physical survey carried out by a farmer’s association found as many as 650 pumping machines strewn across the upper parts of the canal. The water authorities turn a blind eye to these.
A Pakistani official anonymously acknowledged that it was happening in collusion with irrigation officers. “Yes, there are illegal pumps, not as many as 650, but I would say around 300, installed by the feudals who pay bribes for them to remain there to draw water.”