Salinity management in Pakistan

In Pakistan, irrigated agriculture adds approximately 15 million tonnes of salt annually to the Indus Basin. Salinity affects at least 4.5 million hectares of land across the country, and 54% of the lower part of the Indus Basin.

The challenge

Australia and Pakistan share the challenges of developing agriculture within water-scarce, salinity-affected landscapes.

As with the Murray-Darling Basin, salinity in the Indus Basin can be categorised as both primary (i.e. a natural phenomenon) and secondary (i.e. human-induced salinity/waterlogging from irrigation).

Increased dependence on poor-quality groundwater, due to limited and unreliable surface water supplies, is accelerating the extent and severity of land salinisation.

The Adapting to Salinity in the Southern Indus Basin (ASSIB) project was initiated to develop and investigate adaptation options and strategies with people managing and living in salinity-affected agricultural landscapes in the southern Indus Basin.

Our response

Our response to this challenge builds on a growing acceptance that farmers’ participation is vital to the success of field-level practice change programs, including those involving salinity management for those living in salinity affected landscapes.

Our approach has involved selecting and engaging a set of so-called ‘bright spot’ farming communities who have the capacity to co-design on-property research activities to be undertaken as a co-inquiry investigation with ASSIB researchers and other relevant stakeholders.

This 2.5-year project, launched in March 2021, intends to provide a basis for a longer term ‘living with salinity’ research program that will bring in a broader range of collaborating partners and donors.

The project builds on research and outputs from several ACIAR funded projects in Pakistan, including three managed by Charles Sturt’s former Institute for Land, Water and Society, namely:

Achievements to date

  • We are using and improving a best practice participatory approach to co-design on-property research activities with men and women farmers in our bright spot communities. The approach is based on solid adult education principles that recognise farmers as equal participants with others on the research team. Farmers bring their own expertise to the research experience and are equal contributors to its process and outcomes. Farmers provide observations to the research team, who then respond with advice.
  • Co-inquiry activities have been undertaken at several bright spots, with three acquiring sufficient experience to now take a leading role in demonstrating the success of ASSIB’s on-property co-design and co-inquiry approach. These activities enhance the farming communities’ capacity to have an ongoing leading role in such initiatives and strengthens their access to and links with relevant service providers.
  • We have established a land and water capability assessment framework to help categorise a range of adaptation options and their suitability for particular on-property circumstances. A questionnaire to rapidly appraise on-property land and water suitability has been successfully trialled and is being converted into a mobile App. These will be published as part of an updated Salinity Handbook bringing key lessons from our co-inquiry investigations across a range of landscape types together into one place.
  • Local-scale efforts are underpinned by research into salinity-related trends and modelling at broader scales. Analysis of water balance and crop area variability trends in selected Indus Basin canal command areas are offering directions for policy, management and future research. Groundwater models to support monitoring and management of these same canal command areas are being developed by trainees recruited by our two university partners. The intention is that these universities use these experiences to become leading groundwater management research and service providers in the future.

The goal

Intended outcomes by the end of the project

  • Newly developed and existing evidence-based knowledge about salinity in the southern Indus Basin of Pakistan will be available for the staff of Pakistan-based projects, programs and organisations relevant to agricultural development.
  • The project’s case study community members and their institutional support networks will have improved understanding of the opportunities for, and constraints to, current options for adapting to salinity.
  • Individuals and groups (including women and youth) from the project’s case study communities are building capacity to plan their own futures for adapting well to salinity.
  • Relevant government departments, policy makers, donors and other institutions have engaged with and are supporting locally and collaboratively determined adaptation planning strategies, including through co-development of future participatory research projects.

Our team

Principal scientist

Our research team

Professor Jay Punthakey
portrait of Professor Catherine Allan
Professor Catherine Allan
Environmental sociology and planning
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portrait of Dr Mobushir Khan
Dr Mobushir Khan
Spatial Scientist
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portrait of Dr Jen Bond
Dr Jen Bond
Social Scientist
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Key research publications

Allan, C. Baloch, T., Channa, M. Y., Channa, M. A., Heaney-Mustafa, S., Jabeen, N., Kumbhar, B., Malik, I. N., Mohiuddin, I. Mitchell, M., Riaz, M. F., Rubab, A., Samoo, A. H., Zahid, S. M. A. & Zaman, B. (2024). Adapting to Salinity in the Southern Indus Basin: Stories of Change. Gulbali Report 4. Gulbali Institute, Charles Sturt University, Albury, NSW 2640.

Technical Reports

Ali, A. (2023). Improving salinity and agricultural water management in the Indus Basin, Pakistan: Issues, management and opportunities: A synthesis from a desk-top literature review. Gulbali Report 1. Gulbali Institute, Charles Sturt University, Albury, NSW 2640.

Heaney-Mustafa, S., Channa, M. Y., Baloch, T., Channa, M. A., Kumbhar, B., Mohiuddin, I. Riaz, M. F., Rubab, A., Samoo, A. H., Zahid, S. M. A. & Zaman, B. (2023). Stakeholder Engagement for Research and Learning (SERL): Theoretical Underpinnings and Guidelines for Facilitators. Gulbali Report 3. Gulbali Institute, Charles Sturt University, Albury, NSW 2640.

Journal Articles

  • Kirby, M., & Ahmad, M.-u.-D. (2022). Can Pakistan achieve sustainable water security? Climate change, population growth and development impacts to 2100. Sustainability Science, 17(2049-2062).

Papers in conference proceedings

Technical reports

  • Ashraf, M., Fatima, B., Hasan, F. u., & Salam, H. A. (2022). Adapting to Salinity in the Southern Indus Basin: Policy Review. Islamabad, Pakistan: Pakistan Council for Research in Water Resources.

Journal Articles

  • Ahmad, M.-u.-D., Peña-Arancibia, J. L., Stewart, J. P., & Kirby, J. M. (2021). Water balance trends in irrigated canal commands and its implications for sustainable water management in Pakistan: Evidence from 1981 to 2012. Agricultural Water Management, 245, 106648.
  • Ahmad, M.-u.-D., Peña-Arancibia, J. L., Yu, Y., Stewart, J. P., Podger, G. M., & Kirby, J. M. (2021). Climate change and reservoir sedimentation implications for irrigated agriculture in the Indus Basin Irrigation System in Pakistan. Journal of Hydrology, 603, 126967.

Our partners

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