The agriculture challenge

Bringing innovative solutions to the growers and helping them achieve sustainable farming is the only option for coping with the challenges of today’s agriculture sector

The agriculture sector in Pakistan faces major challenges, including depleting water resources, lack of technological innovation, low-quality seeds, and input supply, among others.

Water resources are the lifeline for Pakistan. Since 1950s, the expanse of irrigated land has tripled. Around 90 percent of the water use today goes to irrigate fields. The data obtained by the Pakistan Economic Survey 2016-17 shows that the share of agricultural output in the gross domestic product (GDP) is 19.5 percent, providing 42.3 percent employment to the labour force.

Pakistan’s major crops are wheat, rice, cotton, maize and sugarcane. Together these account for about 63 percent of the total cropped area. Production of three important crops namely: rice, cotton and sugarcane as well as 90 percent of wheat and most of maize, is confined to irrigated areas.

A report of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, Islamabad (PASI) published in 2019 states that the minimum per capita domestic water requirement is 50 litres whereas 2,600 to 5,300 litres water is needed to grow food for one person per day. Therefore, food security is directly related to water security as 50 to 70-times more water is required to grow food than the water used for domestic needs.

However, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) warned in 2016 that the country may run dry by 2025. A UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) 2016 report says that the major threat that Pakistan faces today is not terrorism but water scarcity. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), per capita annual water availability in Pakistan has dropped to 1,017 cubic metres from 5300 in 1947 — the situation is close to the scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic metres.

Suleman Khan, chairman of the Sindh Taas Water Council, says the increasing demand for water and its erratic supply are resulting in water shortages. Population growth, rapid urbanisation, water-intensive farming practices and industrialisation have contributed to Pakistan’s increasing demand for more water. “Pakistan’s water profile has changed drastically from being a water abundant country, to one experiencing water stress. Thus, water related problems are, undoubtedly, amongst the key challenges for Pakistan.”

In Pakistan, the total water supply available to agriculture comes from three sources: rainfall, surface water from the River Indus and its tributaries and ground water. Sewage water and sea water supplement these in some areas.

“The main source of water in Pakistan is the canal irrigation system. The Indus valley, comprising the planes of Punjab and Sindh is mainly dependent on the water of river Indus and its tributaries, as the area is mostly arid on the basis of annual precipitation,” Khan says while talking to TNS.

Food production is dependent mainly on land and water resources. IWMI’s (International Water Management Institute) Physical and Economic Water Scarcity Indicators show that the countries that will not be able to meet the estimated water demands in 2025, even after accounting for the future adaptive capacity, are called “physically water scarce”.

DW reports that Pakistan has the world’s fourth-highest rate of water use. Its water intensity rate — the amount of water in cubic meters used per unit of GDP — is the world’s highest. This suggests that no economy is more water-intensive than Pakistan’s. The IMP ranks Pakistan third in the world among countries facing acute water shortage.

“Pakistan has one of the largest contiguous irrigation systems in the world yet it is one of the most inefficient irrigation systems where more than 60 percent of the water is lost due to leakage and seepage and at the field level due to poor irrigation methods,” says Dr Muhammad Azeem Ali Shah, a senior regional researcher at the IWMI.

DW reports that Pakistan has the world’s fourth-highest rate of water use. Its water intensity rate — the amount of water in cubic meters used per unit of GDP — is the world’s highest. This suggests that no economy is more water-intensive than Pakistan’s.

According to Pakistan Academy of Sciences, Islamabad, Pakistan has one of the world’s largest groundwater aquifers (4th after China, India and the USA). It provides more than 60 percent of irrigation water supplies and over 90 percent of drinking water. The groundwater has played a major role in increasing the overall cropping intensity in Pakistan from about 63 percent in 1947 to over 120 percent in 2018. Nevertheless, 74.3 percent of fresh water is being extracted annually.

“It is the only reliable resource that provides resilience against droughts and climate change impacts. However, this resource is freely accessible. In the absence of any regulatory framework, anyone can install any number of tube wells, of any capacity, anywhere and can pump any amount of water and sell it to others. This resulted in groundwater depletion,” adds Azeem Shah.

Water shortage for agriculture, experts say, can be managed through professional water management, soil and water conservation technologies, enhanced use of high-efficiency irrigation systems, developing drought-resistant varieties, and introducing climate-smart agriculture.

“To help reduce water losses at the tertiary level, methods like ensuring laser levelling; ridge/bed sowing at field level; improvement of outlets can greatly reduce losses from water channels. Use of rain gun, drip irrigation and sprinkle irrigation may be encouraged, especially in the hilly areas, sandy soils, and for high value crops,” suggests Azeem.

“One of the most significant instances of poor administration is the mishandling of yield zoning. High delta yields, for example rice and sugarcane, are grown in zones where surface water is lacking and groundwater is profound and saline,” he says, adding, “These yields in such regions have gigantic stress on groundwater, resulting in water scarcity and salinisation.”

Unfortunately, growers are the victims of this situation. Farmers Associates Pakistan director and Agri Commission member, Farooq Bajwa, says most of the farmers are uneducated. “They do not know how to utilise new ways to manage water properly. In addition, theydo not have the funds to adopt new technologies to increase per acre crop yield.”

He adds, “Pakistan needs to work for a resilient agriculture sector to cope with climate change risks. This requires that growers be equipped with the latest methods of better water management. We need to have high-yield varieties that have the potential for both increasing crop yield and drought resistance like some African countries have successfully opted this kind of seed varieties.”

Head of Public Affairs and Sustainability, Bayer Pakistan, Azeem Khan Niazi tells TNS that Bayer has advanced capability in precision plant breeding and biotechnology. The breeding programmes are designed to address emerging needs of the farmers and local climatic changes. “Through precision breeding, we are able to shorten the breeding cycle of new climate resilient plants and bring better improved seed to farmer.”

Biotechnology has come a long way and several useful traits can now be introduced in plants that would provide protection against pests, increase drought tolerance and improve nutritional value of the crop, he says, adding, “Our drought-tolerant soybean and maize seeds require less water to deliver good yields for the farmer. Cultivation of tomato while using fewer natural inputs has been a success as well.”

Experts believe that bringing innovative solutions to the growers and help them achieve sustainable farming is the only option for coping with the challenges that today’s agriculture sector.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

The solution to Pakistan's agricultural challenges