Flimsy Land Governance And Food Security Threats In KP

Frequent climate change-related disasters and inflation have turned farming into a less-than-profitable enterprise. As a result, more and more farmers have been selling farmland to private housing societies, putting the region's food security at risk

Flimsy Land Governance And Food Security Threats In KP
  • From 2014 to 2023, 302,894 hectares of agricultural land in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) have become unsuitable for farming due to urbanisation and climate change.

  • Rapid population growth in districts like Charsadda and DI Khan has increased pressure on agricultural land, with many areas being converted to residential use.

  • There are many illegal housing schemes on agricultural land due to weak implementation of land use regulations.

  • Over 2.3 million people in KP were projected to experience acute food insecurity between November 2023 and January 2024 due to reduced agricultural land and extreme weather.

  • Past land reforms have been inadequate, and current land settlement processes may create further conflicts.

In the plains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, fertile lands that once sustained generations of farmers and the rapidly increasing population of the province are fast disappearing. What were once sprawling fields with lush green grain-laden crops or orchards full of fruit trees have been swallowed whole by the cold, heartless overreach of grey concrete houses with hideous elevations. Every hectare of wheat and sugarcane fields converted into luxury villas has reduced the possibility for the province to grow the amount of food it once produced, exposing the deep cracks in the land governance policies of the province.

Farmers of the province have been besieged by natural disasters, soaring input costs, and low returns on their products for years. With little to no support from the government and poor land use policies, they feel they can no longer sustain farming as a profession and are left with little choice but to sell their ancestral lands to property developers, trading their agricultural heritage for a tenuous promise of a sustainable future through a short-term cash grab. This alarming trend underscores the urgent need for robust governance and sustainable land use policies to safeguard KP's agricultural backbone and avert a looming ecological disaster while balancing its population's housing and food needs, which has more than doubled over the past 25 years.

Disappearing agricultural land

A March 2024 study by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Crops Reporting Service (CRS)Directorate, Remote Sensing and GIS (Geographic Information System) Research Lab Remote Sensing shows that from 2014 to 2023, around 302,894 hectares of agricultural land in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was converted into land no longer suitable for agriculture. 

Uzair Ahmed, a GIS Specialist at the KP's Crop Reporting Services (CRS) directorate, explained that in the initial phase, a GIS survey was carried out in seven tribal and eight settled districts of the province. The remaining 20 districts are expected to be surveyed in the second phase. Ahmed said in 2013-14, land deemed non-suitable for agriculture was mapped at 1.101 million hectares. However, by 2023, this figure had increased to 1.404 million hectares due to rapid urbanisation and climate change.

"The analysis was primarily focused on the reduction of fertile land and identification of suitable land for agriculture," he said, adding that they noticed a staggering 50% decrease in agricultural land in Charsadda and Dera Ismail Khan (DI Khan).

The report had pinpointed fears the province could face a food security crisis if this trend continues.

A report submitted by the district administration to the Peshawar High Court (PHC) showed that more than 30 illegal or unregistered residential schemes are operating in Charsadda. A case against these illegal housing schemes is pending before the PHC.

Advocate Asif Shah told The Friday Times that after filing the petition, the court had ordered the district administration to submit complete details regarding the illegal residential schemes in Charsadda. He said there are laws on the sustainable use of land, but the issue is their implementation.

According to the KP local government department, of the 442 private housing schemes found operating in KP in 2022, 297 were illegal. Another 87 were pending approval, and only 58 had received formal approval from the government. The local government department said these 442 private housing schemes occupy a total of 69,366 kanals (3,509 hectares) of land. 

In the provincial capital of Peshawar, there are 198 private housing societies, 162 of which are illegal, 18 of which are approved, and another 18 are unapproved. In Dera Ismail Khan, there were 74 illegal housing societies, eight each in Charsadda and Nowshera, 19 in Mardan, and three in Haripur.

Charsadda caught between agriculture and private housing societies

Farooq Alam tills a small patch of land in the Charsadda Khas village. The 50-year-old farmer cultivates sugarcane, wheat, and vegetables on the five acres of farmland he has leased. 

Alam told The Friday Times that he had lost his sugarcane crop during the 2022 floods. In April this year, untimely rain and flash floods wiped out standing wheat crops on three acres of land. Alam, who makes a living off farming, said that generating revenue from agriculture has become increasingly difficult due to natural calamities such as floods and torrential rains.

The district has faced frequent climate change-induced extreme weather events. During the 2022 floods, standing crops of sugarcane, maize, fodder and vegetables planted over 4,254 hectares were ruined. In March and April 2024, torrential rains, hailstorms and flash floods damaged crops over 5,174 acres.

On the other hand, he said that they get squeezed by inflation. Alam told The Friday Times that he cannot afford the high cost of hybrid farming, which is more resistant and produces improved yields. Simultaneously, they have been witnessing an increase in the number of diseases among crops, which has been eating into their revenue. All the while, inflation has been driving up prices of inputs, including pesticides, fertilisers, machinery, and fuel, further squeezing their margins. 

Alam said that he has seen agricultural land in his district disappear, with housing societies being a major reason. Charsadda's population has grown rapidly over the past 25 years. The 1998 population census counted the district's population at 1.022 million. By 2017, the population had swelled to 1,611 million. Five years later, in 2023, the population had swelled to 1.83 million. This has spurred a need for housing in the district.

The farmer said that people have launched housing schemes even with five acres of land, adding that small landowners in this district, who have been unable to sustain themselves on agriculture, have resorted to selling their land to property dealers and builders for a prosperous future. The District Agriculture Crop Statistics Department states that out of 98,641 hectares in the district, some 76,196 hectares are suitable for agriculture; of this, 68,293 hectares are irrigated, while 7,903 are non-irrigated. According to the CRS study, in 2013-14, non-suitable land for agriculture in Charsadda was 8,672 hectares. But by 2023, this had nearly doubled to 15,128 hectares.

"A good education and comfortable life for families is not possible through agriculture," he lamented, adding that all the construction which has taken place in Charsadda over the past 25 years has happened on agricultural land. He lamented that the government is not recognising the importance of the agriculture sector.

Amid a lack of government support for agricultural activities, rising inflation and repeated climate change-induced calamities, Alam said he, too, was thinking about quitting farming in favour of some sustainable business.

DI Khan: A Barren Food Basket

Farmers and landowners in DI Khan have a similar story to their counterparts in Charsadda. The scars of climate change are visible on the faces of many small landowners and farmers, as well as on the landscape.

Like Charsadda, DI Khan's population has grown rapidly over the past 25 years. Consequently, the number of residential units built on agricultural land in this district has been growing rapidly. According to the 1998 census, the district's population was just 852,995. By 2023, this had more than doubled to 1.83 million.

This district, known as the province's food basket, has a total cultivable area of 246,802 hectares, including 154,827 hectares which are irrigated and 91,975 hectares which are non-irrigated. 

During the 2022 superfloods, the DI Khan District Crop Reporting Services found that crops planted over 29,600 hectares were damaged. The torrential rains during March-April 2024 destroyed 7,290 acres of wheat and 371 acres of fodder. 

Malik Farooq owns 1,300 kanals (65.76 hectares) of agricultural land in the Paroa tehsil of DI Khan. The tehsil was one of the most affected areas in the district during the 2022 floods. 

A generational farmer and president of the District Kisan Board, Malik Farooq, told The Friday Times via telephone that the district is the agriculture hub of the entire province, but the government does not take it seriously. Detailing the hardships faced by farmers, he echoed the sentiments of Alam in Charsadda about the rising costs of doing agriculture while contending with decreasing profits. This dire situation, he said, was precipitating a large-scale sale of agricultural land by farmers to build a better future for their families. 

"The government behaves like a silent spectator when it comes to dealing with rapid population growth on agricultural land," Malik Farooq lamented, adding, "This issue is not debated at any level."

Another reason farmers moved away from agriculture in DI Khan is the natural disasters and growing unpredictability of weather patterns. Malik Farooq pointed out that they had not even recovered from the losses caused by the 2022 floods when torrential rains in March-April wiped out crops, leaving many farmers frustrated.

Describing reasons for the shortage of agricultural land in the district, Malik Farooq said that water availability and distribution are major issues. He said the Chashma Right Bank Canal (CRBC) irrigates half of the district. On paper, this should make DI Khan an ideal location for farmers, and he pointed to the presence of four sugar mills in the district as a testament to that fact. But, he said, the 2022 floods changed everything because they destroyed eight distribution channels of the CRBC, which have yet to be repaired.

Unsolved issues in the irrigation system 

Malik Farooq argued that the district has enough water to sustain agriculture. Rather, he contended, the management of available water resources had always remained a serious and irresolvable problem in DI Khan. He said that, including the CRBC, there are some 54 small and large canals in the district, of which 29 are managed by the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) and 25 by the District Irrigation Department. Both departments, however, were silent and unmoved about cleaning and restoring drains in the district, Malik Farooq lamented, claiming that choked drains were a major reason for the devastation caused by the floods in 2022 when several villages sank. 

Apart from the CRBC, the district irrigation department's storm-water drains were also damaged by the 2022 floods, which have yet to be fully rehabilitated.

When The Friday Times contacted the district administration to inquire about work to restore the damaged CRBC channels, officials said they had started repairing the channels. However, the restoration work had ground to a halt midway after some channels had been restored.

An official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of attacks, claimed that work had ground to a halt after militants allegedly demanded protection money from the contractor. The official said that they had informed their superiors about the situation. 

In Charsadda, Alam complained the irrigation system of the district is not stable. He said hybrid crops require more water, and the old irrigation system has not improved enough to support district-wide plantations of hybrid crops. 

Alam said that Chrasadda used to be a wetland, and its old name, Pushkalavati, originated from the 'Water Lotus,' which is locally known as "Barsanda". The name was set when the region served as the capital of the Gandhara civilisation.

The farmer said that in the 1990s, the government launched a Salinity Control and Reclamation Programme (SCARP) through which wetlands were converted into agricultural land, and gradually, agricultural land in the district increased. However, he argued that many unsolved problems remain in the district's irrigation system.

He also raised questions over the government's SCARP project, and said it was not actually resolving the issue of farmers, rather, it was disturbing natural land. 

KP's food security

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Food Security Policy for 2021 warned that using agricultural land for other commercial purposes was a dangerous practice that could threaten the province's food security.

"The basic tool of production, namely land, is emaciated and is used for commercial purposes instead of agriculture," the policy noted, adding that the population explosion, with KP's population ballooning at a rate of 2.8 per annum from just 17.7 million in 1998 to 40.86 million in 2023, has been engorging resources particularly agricultural land, which is being converted into housing societies.

The provincial cabinet, then led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Mahmood Khan, had approved the food security policy in March 2021. Under this policy, a council, led by the chief minister, was established to oversee its implementation. But three years and a general election later, the council has yet to convene. Furthermore, a fund of over Rs300 billion had been promised to improve food security in the province, but like the council, there is no information about the funds either.

In the wake of government apathy towards the fast-developing food security crisis, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale, also known as the IPC scale— a tool for improving food security analysis and decision-making — shows that over 2.3 million people (26% of the analysed rural population) are projected to experience high levels of acute food insecurity between November 2023 to January 2024 in nine districts of KP. The scale predicted food insecurity during this period due to the expected harsh weather in the northern districts, reduced employment/income opportunities in the lean season and increased inflation trends for essential food and non-food items, including fuel and agricultural inputs. 

Land ownership and reforms 

Alam said the distribution of agricultural land among families in Charsadda has always mystified him. Traditionally, he said, land was distributed amongst families belonging to different tribes in the district. Those who got land away from the main road pursued agriculture, but those who got land alongside the road — which is more valuable — either sold it to property dealers or built markets.

Human Rights activist and legal expert on environmental litigation, Advocate Tariq Afghan, told The Friday Times that historically, land ownership patterns have remained vague in the Pashtun society. He said Pashtun tribes did not stay in one place for a very long time and kept moving while changing their habitats. However, after reforms were introduced by the famous 16th-century land reformist Sheikh Mali Baba under the Afghan leader Malik Ahmad Khan Yousafzai, most of the tribes settled permanently, Afghan said. He went on to explain that under Baba's land settlement, the mountains were allocated to those tribes who received rainwater from the same mountains. Unfortunately, Afghan said the land reforms were not equitable while women were all but ignored in the Pashtun land distribution. It was not until the British introduced land settlement that women could own land in the region. After the Partition in 1947, Afghan said three major land reforms were introduced. The first was during Ayub Khan's martial law in 1959, and the second and third were introduced during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's tenure during the 1970s. The 1973 Constitution granted all citizens the right to acquire, hold and dispose of property, he said, adding that despite the constitutionally guaranteed rights, there remain many obstacles to equitable land ownership in Pakistan.

While women's property laws have advanced today, equal distribution of land remains a lingering issue, with hundreds of cases pending in courts.

On November 24, 2021, the provincial assembly passed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Land Use and Building Control Act. The law aimed to regulate land use for agriculture and other purposes, apart from establishing a provincial land-use and building control authority. However, three years since its passage, the authority has yet to be established, and the law remains unimplemented, leaving the sustainable use of land and its regulation in the province uncertain. Had it been implemented, the law would have allowed the creation of district land use and planning committees, headed by the Deputy Commissioner (DC) for the respective district, to regulate housing schemes and other land uses by issuing no-objection certificates (NOCs). These committees would conduct surveys to determine each district's physical infrastructure and land use.

When approached for an explanation, the KP Minister For Local Government, Arshad Ayub, said that the department was actively engaged in establishing the authority and that a summary for the purpose had been prepared. Soon, he said, it will be tabled before the provincial cabinet for approval.

"Once the Provincial Land Use and Building Control Authority is set up, regulation of provincial land and its zoning for various purposes including industries, housing and agriculture will be carried out effectively and help the government stop further reduction of fertile land," he explained.

Afghan, who also serves as the secretary for Youth Affairs in the Awami National Party (ANP), said that encroachment on agricultural land is a fundamental issue in the country, particularly in KP. He added the provincial capital of Peshawar, named so because it was considered the city of flowers, has been converted into a concrete city over the past 20 years. 

Even though the KP government had introduced environmental regulations and policies meant to address the ongoing climate crisis in the province, Afghan said there remain questions on its implementation. He questioned the policies adopted by the provincial government, noting that critical topics such as youth engagement and the opinions of Indigenous communities opinions — vital for policy-making — had been largely ignored by policymakers in the policies they have put in place. 

Commenting on the overall situation, he said there were at least 43 laws protecting the environment in Pakistan, but the major issue was their implementation, which was the substantial reason why Pakistan continues to face the worst climate crisis in the world.

Afghan mentioned the ongoing land settlement issues in the Malakand division and expressed concerns about the upcoming land settlement in areas belonging to the erstwhile federally administered tribal areas (FATA) where many conflicts could arise.

Afghan questioned the ability of the relevant government departments to tackle this crisis, adding that members of the land mafia cannot grab land without the involvement of government officials.

Land governance and climate crisis

Land Portal Foundation, a public interest organisation registered in the Netherlands, creates, curates and disseminates land governance information by fostering an inclusive and accessible data landscape. The organisation says there prevail high levels of inequality over land ownership in KP, with 64% of land owned by just five percent of landlords, and more than 50% of rural families owning no land. 

Land Portal highlighted that Pakistani legislation over land ownership and use is scattered and incoherent. It involves a number of statutory and religious laws and multiple customary practices for a range of ethnic or geographically distinct groupings.

Environmental experts say land governance is vital, but it remains a largely ignored aspect when dealing with the climate crisis.

In response to a question, Afghan said land governance in the climate crisis is not an issue the government, the people, and the political parties raise regularly. While the manifestos of political parties focus on climate change, he said they ignore the core value of sustainable land use and its ties with the climate crisis. He warned that without a rational approach to the sustainable use of land, it would be impossible to achieve the UN's 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Afghan argued the way Pakistan was experiencing a climate crisis, poor land governance was at the heart of it. He feared the way land was being exploited in the country would not only lead to greater food insecurity but to an ecological crisis from which there would be be no way back.

Asif Mohmand is a multimedia journalist based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He can be reached @AsifkhanJmc

Javeed Khan is a senior journalist  based in Peshawar covering Environment, Wildlife, Agriculture and Climate change. He can be reached on 'X' at @kjaved834