ILWS - Charles Sturt University
ILWS - Charles Sturt University

Improving salinity and agricultural water management in the Indus Basin of Pakistan (2017)


Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), $50,000


Dr Michael Mitchell, Dr Jay Punthakey (Adjunct), Dr Ed Barrett-Lennard (Murdoch University), Associate Professor Catherine Allan, Professor Max Finlayson

Research Theme

Sustainable Development (International)


Waterlogging and salinisation are major impediments to the sustainability of irrigated agriculture and livelihoods of farming families across the Indus Basin of Pakistan with about 6.3 million ha in Pakistan affected by different levels and types of salinity. The drive for higher cropping intensities coupled with the lack of adequate surface water supplies has caused farmers to use poor-quality groundwater as a supplementary source of irrigation. The large scale exploitation of poor quality groundwater has increased the risks of soil salinisation and sodicity. Soil salinity problems are particularly serious in Sindh province where some 70 to 80% of the soil is classified as moderately or severely saline. The southern districts of Lower Sindh, Thatta and Badin are particularly vulnerable to salinity due to waterlogging and seawater intrusion in coastal agricultural areas.

This project was essentially a scoping project exploring ways to best address this issue.

A key achievement of the project was the establishment of a network who are co-designing a longer term research agenda for collaboration between Australia and Pakistan to support building of adaptive capacity for communities living in salinity affected areas of Pakistan.

As part of the project, a desk top review was undertaken by Dr Akhtar Ali, a retired salinity and water management expert, who previously worked for the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and Asian Development Bank (ADB). His review investigated evidence for why a holistic approach to salinity management in Pakistan is being recommended. Reviews were also undertaken into past and current ACIAR and other projects relevant to the proposed project, and to explore the benefits of adopting an ecosystem services framing approach drawing on examples from other similar parts of Asia.

The researchers also undertook extensive field trips to selected salinity affected areas in Punjab and Sindh to develop an understanding of the on-ground situation that farming and coastal communities are facing, and to identify examples of community led adaptations.

Collaborators on the project included Professor Bakhshal Lashari (Mehran University of Engineering and Technology), Dr Muhammad Ashraf (Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources),  Dr Javaid Akhtar and Prof Muhammad Ashfaq (University of Agriculture, Faisalabad), and Dr Munawar Kazmi (ACIAR Pakistan).

This scoping project confirmed there is an urgent need to develop a new approach to salinity management in the Indus Basin of Pakistan. In particular, the above-referred review of past approaches to salinity management confirmed that early successes of large and/or basin-wide approaches could not be sustained, and that a major contributing factor is the failure to consider farmer concerns, and insufficient operational and maintenance planning.  It found that what is needed in Pakistan is a holistic approach that incorporates the social, environmental, technical and economic aspects of salinity management. Such an approach offers better prospects for identifying and exploring adaptation measures and building resilience for communities affected by salinity.


Mitchell, M., Punthakey, J., Barrett-Lennard, E., Allan, C. Culas, R., & Finlayson, M. (2018) Improving Salinity and Agricultural Water Management in the Indus Basin of Pakistan. Final report


The project, and further related activities in 2018, has led to the decision by ACIAR to support a second scoping project Living with salinity in the Indus Basin: SRA 2. Mitchell, M., Barrett-Lennard, E. (Murdoch University) Allan, C., Punthakey, J.  (2019) ACIAR, $88,000. The purpose of this scoping project is to collaboratively develop a proposal for ACIAR to invest in a series of projects delivered over a 10 year time frame to help build adaptive capacity of communities living in salinity affected areas of Pakistan.


Dr Michael Mitchell,
Albury-Wodonga campus

July 2020