Wheat woes

March 29, 2015

Pakistan needs to remodel its agriculture techniques as erratic weather threatens major crops

Wheat woes

Asghar Ali, 75, a farmer from Mandranwala village in Sialokt district, waited for rains for weeks, before irrigating his wheat crop in mid-February. His bad luck, only two days after he irrigated his crop, skies opened up and it rained at regular intervals for the next four weeks. "These were unusually heavy rains accompanied by strong winds. They flattened the wheat crop while water accumulated in the low-lying fields," he says.

Of the one of his five acres of crop has been completely damaged while the rest is partially damaged. "I have already used one acre as fodder. There is still a lot of moisture in the soil and another spell of rains or winds would put the harvest in jeopardy."

This year, the rains arrived more than three weeks late and were unusually heavy, accompanied by strong winds and hailstorms. But, Ali and a majority of farmers in his area irrigated their crops in the month of February, depending on their traditional knowledge of weather.

"There used to be scattered rains in winter, starting from December to February, but the situation has changed over the years. Still we follow the old pattern of irrigating the wheat crop on different stages. Last year, we irrigated our crop during the flowering stage but usual rains in March and April caused significant damage to our crop," he says.

Ali is quite surprised by the changing pattern of rains in recent years - "In 2010, there was no rain in March while last year it rained in March and April. This year, February and March have been unusually wet. It has become difficult for us to decide when to irrigate and when to harvest our crop."

Though unexpected and late spells of rains have damaged standing crops on thousands of acres in central Punjab districts, they are being termed beneficial for the crops in other parts of the country, especially in the arid region of Punjab which accounts for 10 per cent of total wheat production in the province.

"There is no use of PMD weather forecast if it does not reach end users -- farmers," says Mushahidullah Khan, Federal Minister for Climate Change.

"The rains, winds and hailstorms partially damaged 0.7 million acres of crop in the rice belt of Punjab but 2.4 million acres of crop in arid areas gained from these rains," says Ibrahim Mughal, chairman of the Pakistan Agri Forum. "The damages in the rice belt could have been avoided had the government authorities shared detailed weather information with farmers. The officials of agriculture departments in Pakistan are unaware of the changing patterns of weather. We need technical people to run these departments," he says.

Agronomists say that rains at maturity phase hit the wheat crop three-ways. "Moisture in spike of wheat at maturity phase results in germination of seed which means it would not give good result if used to cultivate the next crop; it would cause fungal infection which results in creation of micro-toxins that are harmful for human health; and it shatters the grain," says Muhammad Farooq, Associate Professor Agronomy Department at the Faisalabad Agriculture University.

Climate change experts say the weather would remain erratic, therefore, Pakistan, especially Punjab, needs to remodel its agriculture. "We will have to incorporate climate change as a major factor in our agriculture planning," says Shakeel Ramay, head of Climate Change Study Centre of Islamabad-based research institute Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). He says that development of seeds that are resistant to varying temperatures is the only sustainable solution to the impact of climate change in the country. "Otherwise, our rural economy and food security would be at stake. These rains have affected small farmers the most. It has not only disturbed their food security but also the food security of their animals as wheat crop is an important fodder for cattle," he says.

Agriculture Department officials say that in Punjab, which produces 80 per cent of total wheat in the country, wheat crop was cultivated on 17.1 million acres this year against 17 million acres last year. "We are expecting to produce 19.35 tonnes of wheat in the province against the target of 19.5 million tonnes," a senior official of the department, who does not want to be named, tells TNS. "The rains on booting stage are not too dangerous though we fear to lose 1-2 per cent because of these rains. Certain districts of the province would bear more loss than others. More rains would bring more damage to wheat as harvesting would become tougher," he says, adding that these rains have damaged lentils significantly in arid areas. "This is true that we have not been considering climate change phenomenon seriously in agriculture planning."

Although experts on agriculture in arid areas admit that rains would have positive impact on the wheat crop in the area, they do not undermine the phenomenon of climate change. "Winter crops including wheat have been suffering because of climate change phenomenon," says Dr Muhammad Tariq, director Barani Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) Chakwal. "The wheat crop was also under stress this season. We have had rains in Barani areas in February after a gap of four months," he says.

However, he adds, "The sowing season of winter crop is getting late because of changing weather patterns."

The Barani areas of Punjab have received 200ml rains in February and March. "This is total average winter rainfall in the area. Earlier, we used to receive the same amount of rain in four months," he says.

There is no early warning system for farmers in our country. The rains are a localised phenomenon in different ecologies and "we need a localised forecast for farmers. Farmers should have a complete weather forecast when irrigating the field, fertilising and harvesting the crops."

A recent World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF Pakistan) study titled Climate Change Adaptation in the Indus Eco-region finds that per acre yield of three major crops -- wheat, cotton and rice -- may fall between 8 and 10 per cent in next 25 years if farmers are not encouraged to adapt to climate change. "This amounts to a loss of up to Rs30,000 per acre for growers of wheat, rice and cotton crops," says Ali Dehalvi, a researcher with the team that worked on Climate Change in the Indus Eco-region study.

The study identifies five strategies, like varying harvest and cultivation timings, choice of crops grown in a year and inputs and various on-farm soil and water conservation techniques employed by farmers to adapt to the impacts of climate change. "Only about 50 per cent of our respondents are using these techniques to prevent losses in crop yields," he says.

Experts on climate change say that winter season is getting delayed and rain pattern has become erratic in Pakistan. "We had a three months of dry winter. The average temperature during the first two weeks of March was between 11 and 13 degrees Celsius, but it warmed up to 25 degree Celsius in less than a week," says Dr Ghulam Rasul, Chief Meteorologist at Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD). He says late rains so far are good for wheat as a whole, "but we have serious concerns about the harvesting season in Sindh and Punjab."

The peak harvesting season is April in Sindh and May in Punjab. "According to our predictions there would be frequent showers accompanied with hailstorm and winds in these two months in both provinces," he says, claiming that PMD has the technology to do localised weather forecast. "We can forecast weather for 3-7 days for every 10 kilometre of the country but we do not have the resources and technology to disseminate the information to farmers."

There is hardly any connection between the government institutions and farmers to find ways to fight the phenomenon of climate change in agriculture sector. "There is no use of PMD weather forecast if it does not reach the farmers," says Mushahidullah Khan, Federal Minister for Climate Change. "The heavy rains arrived at least three weeks late in Pakistan. Moisture weakens the spikes and delays the maturity of wheat. Many farmers irrigated their crops only a day before the rains which may be fatal for the crop," he says, adding that his ministry is in contact with provinces and different departments.

"My ministry can only give policy guidelines to provinces. We know that climate change is a reality. We cannot avoid it. We need to get ready to protect our farmers. I would recommend the PMD to disseminate the weather forecast through FM radio and mobile companies in rural areas of the country," he adds.

Wheat woes