A surge in rice exports prompts a critical inquiry into whether there are underlying constraints posed by sustainable utilisation of natural resources
ndia’s decision to impose a ban on non-basmati rice exports has echoed far beyond its borders. The ban is driven by the need to fulfil domestic demand and curb rising prices in its own rice market.
India’s policy has had a chain of consequences: one of them is a ripple effect in the global rice trade. This impact has been particularly pronounced given that India contributed 40 percent of the global rice export volume for 2022-23. This development has opened an unforeseen window of opportunity for Pakistan’s rice exporters who now find themselves in a position to tap into the international rice market share.
Pakistan’s rice exports have grown by an impressive 36 percent over the past two decades. The ban on Indian rice exports provides a promising prospect for escalation of this trend.
However, it is important to note that the previous year witnessed a setback for Pakistan, as its rice exports suffered a decline of 25 percent in terms of volume and a significant 14.5 percent drop in dollar value. This decline was attributed to the devastating floods that wreaked havoc in Sindh.
Despite this setback, the Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan sees a bright horizon. Projections suggest that Pakistan’s rice exports could surge by 35 percent, resulting in an impressive total of 5 million tonnes valued at $3 billion for the 2023-24 period. This surge not only appears lucrative in the face of economic challenges but also presents a ray of hope in the midst of a shortage of foreign exchange reserves for essential imports.
Yet, this surge in rice exports also prompts a critical inquiry: are there underlying constraints posed by the sustainable utilisation of natural resources? This query directs our attention to the potential environmental and ecological costs associated with this linear expansion. Recent strides in sustainability science, climate consciousness, and a heightened understanding of the planet’s fragility have spurred many nations to re-evaluate the manner in which they interact with their ecosystems and water resources planning. Pakistan, like many other countries, grapples with the intricate balance between economic growth and environmental preservation. As global awareness of environmental concerns intensifies, there is a growing recognition that the pursuit of economic progress cannot be detached from its environmental consequences.
The launch of Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas by the Water Resources Institute has illuminated Pakistan’s water sector vulnerability. This assessment categorises Pakistan as under ‘high’ water stress due to extensive water withdrawals through its contiguous canal irrigation network and groundwater mining in the sweet groundwater patches. The report estimates a GDP impact of $70 trillion by 2050 due to water scarcity.
More than half of this GDP vulnerability is concentrated in four countries: India, Mexico, Egypt and Turkey. In this context, the expansion of water-intensive crops such as rice takes on a new significance, as it adds another layer of pressure to Pakistan’s already fragile water resources.
Pakistan, the fourth largest rice producer in the world, dedicates a quarter of its cultivated land in summer and 10 percent of the total cultivated land area to rice farming. However, the recent expansion of rice cultivation beyond its historical boundaries has exacerbated an already precarious situation for local ecosystem.
Rice cultivation, a quintessential component of Pakistan’s agricultural landscape, comes with significant a water demand. This crop consumes more than 50 percent of irrigation supplies in the Asian continent. Pakistan, the fourth largest rice producer, dedicates approximately a quarter of its cultivated land in summer and 10 percent of the total cultivated area to rice farming. The recent expansion of rice cultivation beyond its historical boundaries — Gujranwala, Sialkot, Narowal, Hafizabad and Sheikhupura — into water-scarce regions like Okara, Pakpattan and Bahawalnagar and parts of Sindh like Sanghar, Shahdadpur and Nawabshah, along the left bank, and Larkana, Dadu, Shadadkot on the right bank of the Indus River has exacerbated an already precarious situation for the local ecosystem.
As rice cultivation extends its footprints eastwards and southwards, canal irrigation schemes which were not originally designed for these water-intensive crops are leading to a reduction in overall national average of water use efficiency. To put this in perspective, globally, about 1.4 cubic metres of water are used to produce 1 kilogramme of rice. However, in Pakistan, the WUE is notably lower, at less than 0.45 kg/m3. As rice cultivation expands into regions struggling with water scarcity, the WUE figure can drop further. Rice crop water requirement studies conducted in the Lower Bari Doab Canal (LBDC) schemes have reported WUE of rice crop as low as 0.08 kg/m3 — only 80 grams of rice with 1,000 litres of water.
In the lower Indus basin (Larkana and Dadu districts) Pancho irrigation (draining of water after 4-5 days from the fields) is practised because standing water in rice field becomes too hot. Under Pancho irrigation practice, an average 785 mm (59 percent) more water is applied as compared to non-Pancho irrigation practice.
he socio-economic implications of this high delta agricultural expansion are profound. Uneven water distribution between the head and tail reaches of canal systems has resulted in disparities, disrupting water availability. The unsustainable extraction of groundwater has reached alarming levels, surpassing natural recharge rates by a staggering one billion cubic metres annually. A recent analysis by the Asian Development Bank underscores the severity of the groundwater crisis in Punjab canal schemes, showing significant drops in groundwater levels across 14 canal commands.
The situation is most dire in the eastern part of the province where the river flow is limited due to the Indus Water Treaty arrangement. This exacerbates the groundwater issue, as the eastern rivers remain inactive for most of the year, hampering the opportunity for recharge.
This does not mean that western canal commands are stable. Alarming declines in groundwater levels have been observed in pockets in the western canal commands, like the Upper and Lower Chenab Canal commands as well. Unsustainable groundwater extraction poses a groundwater quality threat for fresh groundwater pockets because there are chances of mixing sweet and brackish groundwater patches due to the reverse gradient aquifer flow.
A shift towards cultivating high delta crops like rice and sugarcane in water-scarce regions will trigger a cascade of challenges, including the creation of aquifer depression zones and the propagation of waterlogging and salinity. Consequently, a radical reassessment of current crop patterns is necessary for Green Revolution 2.0 to achieve the right equilibrium between surface water allocation and groundwater extraction.
Revisiting the crop patterns assumes paramount importance in formulating a sustainable groundwater management framework that aligns with the broader objectives of balanced water resource utilisation and environmental conservation.
The writer is a senior research and development fellow at the Centre for Climate and Environmental Research. He writes about water and climate governance and community participation. He tweets @Muhamma04818452