The much-hyped surface water irrigation project of Sormongla canal in Rajshahi's Godagari upazila, implemented by Barind Multipurpose Development Authority (BMDA) at a cost of Tk 12.16 crore, has been fumbling without water for the past ten years.
Funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the re-excavation and modernisation project of the 29-kilometre-long canal was designed for all-year round irrigation of around 2,000 hectares of cropland on both sides of the canal, with water channelled in from the Padma river.
The BMDA claims the Sormongla project to be their 'most successful work' towards utilising surface water. But contrary to the claim, the canal -- stretching from Nityanandapur to Bilpatikula -- fails to deliver the much-needed irrigation water throughout most parts of the year, except for a few months during the monsoon, to vast swathes of cropland in the Barind region.
Farmers as well as officials at the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) in Godagari said the canal has remained dry for the last ten years, except for the months in monsoon.
According to DAE data, the current irrigation coverage by the canal is no more than 150 hectares -- only 7.5 percent of the coverage targeted by BMDA.
Shafikul Islam, the DAE official in the upazila, quoting field officers said that only 10 kilometres of the canal, from Nityanandapur, hold water. The remaining 19 kilometres of the canal, from Gogram, can never hold any water in the dry season.
As a result, farmers in the area are either leaving their croplands fallow or desperately turning to groundwater extracted by private operators, which ultimately defeats the core purpose of the Sormongla project -- to save the environment by lowering dependency on groundwater for irrigation of croplands, the DAE officials and farmers said.
Local farmers alleged that many private operators with political clout have been making brisk business by supplying groundwater to the farmers with deep tube wells in the area.
These operators have been 'managing' the BMDA officials to shut off water flow into the canal so the farmers are compelled to procure water for irrigation from the private operators, they also alleged.
BMDA Superintending Engineer Md Shamsul Huda said, "The allegations are not true… The canal should always have water. But the farmers sometimes extract all water from it. We fill it up whenever necessary."
In 2003, the UNDP under its 'Sustainable Environment Management Programme' provided funding for re-excavating the canal, constructing weirs to maintain water its water level, and setting up of pontoons, water pumps in the Padma river and installing 3.5 kilometres of pipelines to pump water in the canal from the Padma.
BMDA completed the project by 2006-07. It installed 33 low-lift pumps and six solar panels along the canal for the distribution of irrigation water.
Initially, the pumps had the capacity to withdraw 30 cusecs of water from the Padma every day, but the capacity fell to 15 cusecs daily, BMDA official Rafiqul said, adding that the capacity is still sufficient to fill up the canal.
He, however, could not explain as to why the canal was mostly dry when this correspondent visited the project area recently.
While visiting Jogpur village under the project area, this correspondent found no water in the canal, with the exception of a puddle of water near a set of solar panel installed by BMDA.
Farmers said the canal had also been dried up in Mohorapur, Sapaipur, Tulsipur, Muralipur, Gogram Dhatma, Boshipara, Belora, Biroil and Bilpatikula areas.
Farmer Tajirul Islam, from Jogpur, said he had to buy water from a private irrigation pump to cultivate Boro rice on 0.56 hectares of land. "Groundwater is more expensive. But I had to buy it, finding no water in the canal."
This correspondent came across two such private deep tube wells in the village, within hundred meters of the canal.
Anwar Hossain of Nakradighi area, owner of one of the pumps, said he installed a semi-deep pump, capable to irrigate 9.63 hectares of land, ten years ago to ease sufferings of farmers during the dry season.
"The canal remains empty in the dry season. I couldn't cultivate paddy of Chaitra [Boro] since the canal was re-excavated," said Mazed Ali, a farmer from Jogpur village.
Ataur Rahman, who operates pumps of the BMDA project in the village, said, "I have no work when there's no water in the canal."
Farmers at a crop field in Sreerampur area said that out of 6.42 hectares of land in the field, they cultivated Boro on only 0.96 hectares.
"If water is available, we cultivate Boro after harvesting wheat. But without any water [in the canal] this season, the land will remain uncultivated for three months, until the monsoon arrives," said Alauddin, a farmer from the area.
He said although it is costly, some farmers used household water pumps to irrigate Boro that they cultivated for their own consumption.
Shahin Ali of the village cultivated Boro on 0.32 hectares, using household pump to irrigate the crop. He has also been supplying water to neighbouring crop fields.
"What could I do? Farmers have been pleading to save their Boro paddy. I can't help supplying water to their land," he said.
"For some people, water in Barind region is like an oil mine in the Middle East. Anyone sets up an irrigation pump gets rich within a couple of years. We've been witnessing it with our own eyes," said Farmer Mazed Ali.
Although most pump owners spend only Tk 28 per hour on electricity, they charge Tk 110 from farmers -- making a profit of Tk 82, he said, adding that for a land area of 0.16 hectares, a farmers spends at least Tk 4,000 to buy water from private operators during Boro season.
Meanwhile, water flow in the Padma river has been 'sufficient' this season, said Zahadul Islam, an executive engineer of Bangladesh Water Development Board.