There is little to no attempt to use data science in the planning process for agriculture revival post floods
early five months after the floods, the recovery process is frustrating for most. The challenges are gigantic and multifarious i.e., infrastructure damage, loss of livelihood, lack of potable water, shortage of food, collapsed shelters, worn out clothing and shoes, difficulties in the revival of crops and livestock, deteriorating mother and child health, missing schools and a horrible new sociology.
A UN sponsored donors’ conference is in the offing. A World Bank loan is already in the news. Cash strapped governments have tried to be helpful. The non-government engagements are also obvious. One hopes that resources are put where they are needed. Our experience of working with agricultural and rural households tells a mixed story of hope and despair.
We have remained engaged in the field using satellite images, foot surveys and ground truthing, personal interviews, meetings with school going kids, scout camps and community gatherings. These were undertaken in specific areas of Jampur tehsil, Union Council Chak Shikari in Rajanpur district, tribal areas of Thul Wazir and Thul Saaid, 56 kilometres from Fazilpur city in Suleman Range, and Saleh Pat in Sukkur district. The area in Suleman Range covered under this campaign has a population of over 5,000, but the inhabitants are scattered in small mud houses. The average land holding is two acres. They have been hit by hill torrent floods, but not to the extent witnessed in 2022.
A collections/ contributions and resource mobilisation campaign at our campus generated enough cash and truck loads of goods to run a rehabilitation exercise that continues to date. We also worked with government and non-government collaborators. The political leadership was kept informed. Politicians in upper Sindh were more receptive than those in South Punjab.
We served 700 households (wheat flour, rice, sugar, ghee, pulses, mosquito nets, water cans, clothing, quilts, crockery, livestock feed, medical camps etc) and provided 2,300 seed bags, each for one acre of wheat, fodder, mustard and five marlas for vegetables. This was a drop in the bucket but our visits back to the families last week saw that this work was bringing back smiles.
We collaborated with the NDMA and provided 1,500 food packs for expecting mothers. We distributed animal feed and medicine. Similar interventions were seen from others in the relief and rehabilitation work. Yet, there are numerous people who remain underfed, without shelter and warm clothing/ shoes. The migration in search of livelihood has occurred on a large scale. That has made divided families (women and children) more vulnerable. We are working on the installation of solar pumps for drinking water and construction of public toilets for the most deprived segments. But the real solution lies in reviving agriculture.
A majority of the farmers have sold livestock, the easily en-cashable asset. The agricultural fields fall in two categories i.e., flooded and flooded as well as eroded. Sowing has been possible where water could be drained and fields dried up in time. The erosion from one point means deposition at other downhills. Both are in a need of mechanical work. Damage to the irrigation infrastructure is ubiquitous and beyond the means of ordinary farmers. The DAP fertiliser off-take is worrying i.e., about half that of a normal year. The DAP prices have crashed due to the low demand. This could be reflected in a reduction of yields at the next wheat harvest. This could be on account of lack of bank credit and deficient lending capacity with the arthi. Wheat crop also needs an essential application of weedicide after first irrigation (about this time of the year) to avoid a loss of up to 20 percent of crop yields. I fear a low uptake of weedicide will occur, simply because of a lack of liquidity with farm households.
Large swaths of agricultural land have yet to be cultivated because of the stagnant water or due to a lack of machinery or cost of energy to put the field back to normal. That will include land levelling and rehabilitation of irrigation and drainage channels and water pumps. This is an opportunity for a well-deserved public investment in infrastructure and machinery.
While the season for wheat and canola has elapsed, options like fodder, vegetables, oilseeds and pulses (sunflower, soybean, mungs) should be promoted. The revivable flood zone is very well suited for cotton crop. A package of seed and fertiliser delivery needs to be ensured at the farmers’ doorstep. Revival of markets is yet another weak link that has not received due attention. Markets are the epicentres of credit, services and innovation for agriculture.
Assuring availability of quality cotton seed for the next crop will be a serious challenge. Nearly half of the standing crop was lost to the floods and the rest has suffered damage from pest and weather. There seems to be a complete lack of proper seed cotton crop. The seed supplies are likely to be sourced from ordinary ginneries. It is high time that we revisit our cotton policy and GM seed imports framework. Collaboration with global technology providers seems inevitable. A cotton campaign should be devised to promote early sowing.
Barring a satellite image analysis in an FAO report on the flood status, there is hardly any attempt to use data science in the planning process for revival. The entire agricultural landscape in the flood zone could be redefined into precise agroecological zones. This is an opportunity for the research and academia to step forward and put their skills to use. This requires no new infrastructure or investment in hardware. Only a will to work.
Floods had created a wave of empathy that could have united a bitterly divided nation. But electronic media news shows and newspaper columns have already diverted away from the post-flood situation. The political and economic landscape of the country has taken the front stage. While we cry foul, the plight of the flood affected is nothing but business as usual for the elite of this country.
The writer is the vice chancellor of University of Agriculture, Faisalabad