Drought of change

Climate change is pulverizing agriculture, highlights Haroon Janjua, as policymakers continue to procrastinate

Drought of change
It is the most ancient profession for humankind. More than 10,000 years after agriculture began to evolve, human beings figured out the importance of food, plants and animals. The sector plays a vital role in strengthening a country’s economy.

Almost half of the world’s labor force is engaged in agriculture. The world agricultural population — defined as people dependent on agriculture, fishing, hunting, and forestry as their livelihood — count for more than 37 percent of the global population in 2011, according to latest available figures.

Agriculture is the most vulnerable sector to climate change. Crop productivity is being affected by several elements of climate change: rising temperature, rainfall pattern, changes in sowing and harvesting dates and practices, land suitability and water availability. These factors suffice in altering productivity. The impact posed by climate change on farming practices included diminishing of agricultural output and shortening of growth period for crops. Countries lying in the tropical and sub-tropical regions are facing devastating consequences.
Waqas Ali has lost 15 acres of his crops including cotton and sugarcane

Agriculture sector accounts for a large share in developing countries’ gross domestic product (GDP). Thus economic development cannot be achieved without improving the agriculture sector in accordance with changing weather patterns.

Economic Survey of Pakistan (2014-15) suggests that the country’s main natural resource is arable land. While agriculture sector’s contribution to the GDP is 22 percent it has merely posted a growth of 2.9 percent in the outgoing fiscal year 2015 compared to 2.7 percent in the previous year. Climate change is a clear hurdle in getting appropriate yield. However, the sector absorbs 45 percent of labor force. Its share in exports is 18 percent.

A farmer ploughing seeds in the desert
A farmer ploughing seeds in the desert

Crop areas are under severe pressure of urbanization

Living in the shallow area, Waqas Ali, 22, of the Waraan Seeraan village, of tehsil Karor in Layyah district has lost 15 acres of his crops including cotton, sugarcane and mong. The entire village has been wiped out. Living with six family members in a flood relief camp, Waqas’s only source of income is agricultural farming. He has been engaged in this occupation since his father’s death in 2010. Of the 10,000 people in his village, more than half of the residents own arable land.

Waqas’s struggle can be multiplied by many millions throughout the country. The recent floods have submerged entire villages and fertile crops fields and continue to hit the poor farmers in a country where farming is the only economic linchpin.

Desperation in his eyes was visible as many of his animals were also killed and drowned as floods washed away heavy quantities of stored goods. Experts and relief workers warned that if millions of farmers like Waqas missed the deadline to sustain and reseed for years to come, the country could face prolonged food shortages.
A family rescued by Pakistan Army amd Rescue workers in Karor Lal Eson

Besides food crops, the loss of cash crops like cotton, could undersell the nation’s ability to retrieve. With 20 percent of the cotton wiped away, Pakistan’s famous textile industry, accounting for 62 percent of the country’s exports, is predicted to stumble. In a country like Pakistan, climate change impacts can be so devastating that they can pulverize the national exchequer. But the policy level agenda is still missing and the government is not taking climate change seriously.

Like many others, the father of Haq Nawaz Mehr, a cultivator in Layyah, has built his farm along the banks of Indus River because of the frequent floods. But these plains can be transformed into hubs of disaster, in a matter of hours, as the intensity of the rains here in the monsoon season is devastating.

Laborers working in Kahuta Potohar where wheat crop was destroyed by heavy rains
Laborers working in Kahuta Potohar where wheat crop was destroyed by heavy rains

The latest available figures issued by National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) indicate that more than 1.2 million people have been affected, while some 3,093 villages and 8,658 houses damaged due to intense floods. The recent floods have killed 170 people with 122 people sustained injuries.

According to NDMA as many as 3,093 villages have been affected in floods, of which 2,278 are situated in Sindh, 512 in Punjab, 17 in Azad Kashmir and 286 in Gilgit-Baltistan. About 449,460 persons have been affected by floods in Punjab, 625,641 in Sindh and 136,000 in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA) research consortium (2012–18) seeks to improve understanding of how South Asian agriculture and related food policies and interventions can be better designed and implemented to increase their impacts on nutrition in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. However, the researchers of (LANSA) had long warned that agricultural farming is severely under climate change pressure, which will lead to food insecurity in these countries in the near future.
"The crop yield is still the same as it was in 1999"

According to Asian Development Bank, in recent years, high temperatures have been noticed in Asia and the Pacific regions. Agriculture sector in these regions is extremely vulnerable as 37 percent of the total global emissions from agriculture production are being accumulated from Asia and the Pacific region. Pakistan is highly vulnerable to climate change in terms of natural disasters impacting agriculture.

Pakistan has been bearing the brunt of intense floods over the past five years. The huge downpours, lack of water reservoirs and good governance are the contributing factors in adding to the miseries leading to diseases, food insecurity and poverty.

The 2010 floods in Pakistan had wreaked havoc in the country. As reported by experts, it was a clear demonstration of climate change’s wrath. It brought about a comprehensive loss of Rs855 billion to the country’s economy with the agriculture sector alone bearing a loss of Rs 429 billion (half of the total loss).  The 2010 flood affected 17,553 villages with 1,985 fatalities occupying an area of 160,000 square kilometers.
Pakistani farmers try to salvage what they can from mango groves devastated by floods in Muzaffargarh

Politically weak developing countries, such as Pakistan, can confront political uncertainty and insecurity due to escalating climate change stress over the years, development experts have warned.

The Monsoon showed up with full bloom this year. Chitral flooding due to heavy torrential rains has caused huge loss in Punjab and Sindh with damage to sugarcane, rice, fodder and vegetables. The crops and the infrastructural damage expected from Indus waters will be high. In rupee terms, to date, it has been around Rs 25-40 billion.

“We need to learn how to live with floods. The focus should be on creating awareness, to learn population pressure and utilization of natural resources. The farmers of the flood prone areas should be warned earlier to avoid devastating damage,” said Dr Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, Special Advisor UN-WMO.

Dr Chaudhry, who is also a lead author of country’s climate change policy and Secretary General for Asia and ADB climate change informed that, “Lack of research in Pakistan has ensured that the country has been unable to gauge the intensity of climate change. However, international research bodies indicated that climate change has continued to hit the country, resulting in 10-15% reduction in wheat production every year. With the increasing temperature, the cultivation of wheat should be raised in accordance with high population growth. Crop areas are under serious pressure of urbanization due to which farming products impacting erratic weather”.

Women engaged in rice plantation
Women engaged in rice plantation

“Climate change can put agriculture at risk by making warmer conditions, reducing soil moisture.  It can also make water supplies lower on average but with a higher variation permitting more flooding and more droughts.  Pest incidence is also likely to increase,” said Bruce A. McCarl, a professor of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University.

“However, economic losses, primarily in agricultural sector, are at such a huge level that they cannot be calculated accurately. Every year during the monsoon season the agricultural fields are heavily hit with submersion,” he added.

Principally the teeming population and poverty in Pakistan is subtle, which is directly harming the lives of the people on both social and economic fronts. Climate change poses greatest risks to population living in vulnerable locations. The population abject to extreme poverty lives in those locations.
Farmers protested in front of Punjab Assembly in August

“Climate change will continue to hit Pakistan very hard like we have seen with the Karachi heatwave. In the absence of any adaptation strategy, lack of investment in storage for past 48 years flooding and drought will continue to inflict losses of 6-14 billion US dollars annually. They will continue to eat up any economic growth which is around 4-5% annually. There will be a negative impact on cotton in Sindh and Punjab if heavy rains continue,” said renowned economist and climate change expert, Pervaiz Amir.

“In grazing areas, rain will have a positive impact on livestock productivity and also enhance fodder crops like maize, bajra and sorghum. Left over moisture from rain and floods will benefit wheat plantation provided water dries up. But overall, flooding and torrential rains will negatively hit the national exchequer. We need to invest in opportunities that lower climate induced damages and convert heavy rains into stored water opportunities at all levels,” he added.

Agriculture sector constitutes 22 percent of the total GDP in Pakistan. The sector not only comprises of farming but fruits, vegetables, livestock and fisheries as well. If global warming is taken into account, the average temperature has been increased by up to 2 degrees. Nowadays, water boils at 100 degree Celsius not at 99 degrees. And 1 degree matters a lot in the ideal growth scenario. Crops like wheat, cotton, rice and sugarcane are sensitive in two ways:  temperature and day length i.e. photo period. When the temperature reaches 37-38 degrees, healthy crops absorption decreases from leaf area index, and photosynthesis is reduced.

Rescue worker in Karor Lal Eson Layyah
Rescue worker in Karor Lal Eson Layyah

According to Jinnah Institute Islamabad’s report, Pakistan’s mango production has been severely impacted this year owing to the intense weather, causing damage worth millions of dollars.

Dr Ibrahim Mughal, Chairman Agri Forum Pakistan said: “The crop yield we were producing in 1999 is still the same today. We have to produce new climate resilient hybrid varieties for better production. With the rise in temperature, the crops are not able to get required water. This leads to less production”.

“The country is rich in livestock production as well, with 170 million animals comprising 60 million buffaloes, 50 million cows and 60 million sheep and goats. Similarly, the rise in temperature is heavily impacting the milking capacity with slow meat growth. Due to the changing climate, milking production has been decreased by 10-12 percent. We need to breed such species which resist high temperatures,” Mughal further added.

The percentage of population depending on natural resources and weather patterns is very high in Pakistan – rain fed agriculture, irrigation from rivers, fisheries and forest products are all important to the economy. Climate change is likely to impact natural resources and production systems, thus impacting the lives of the bulk of the population.

“Natural calamity always has had devastating impacts mainly on poor countries. Every year the agricultural sector bears the extreme weather events, affecting crops adversely. For example, hailstorm in the Potohar region,” said Mohsin Iqbal, who heads the agriculture sector in Global Change Impact Study Center Islamabad.

The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011
The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011 - Photo Credit UNDP

“The wheat in the Potohar region majorly depends on rain. Potohar accounts for 10 percent of the total cultivated wheat in the Punjab, contributing about seven percent of the wheat production in the province. However, over the past few years hailstorms and windstorms have been damaging the wheat crop,” he added.

Numerous farmers from Potohar region including Gujjar Khan, Kahuta, Kallar Syedaan and Mandra say that extreme weather is threatening the agriculture farming. They said that local knowledge of sowing and harvesting is no longer applicable in Potohar region.

The extreme weather has also hampering horticulture. Due to intense heat, the post harvest loss has been escalating. For appropriate production the cool chain has to be initiated, without which fruits and vegetables are spoiled.

According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): “Most of the world’s undernourished people are still to be found in Southern Asia, by 2050, climate change and erratic weather patterns could have pushed another 24 million children into hunger”.

Last month, the Ministry of Climate Change and FAO worked together to tackle the hovering climate risks for the agriculture sector. Patrick T Evans, FAO country representative for Pakistan said: “We are prepared to assist Pakistan in addressing climate change’s impact on the agriculture sector, which is crucial for the country’s sustained economic growth. We want to acquire demonstrated experiences of improved farming and irrigation patterns and work on brining in climate-resilient crop varieties, which can sustain floods, droughts, heatwaves and salinity.”

In the second quarter of this year, WWF-Pakistan launched a report, which was the first of its kind. It was entitled Climate Change Adaptation in the Indus Eco-region: A Micro-Econometric Study of the Determinants, Impact and Cost Effectiveness of Adaptation Strategies.

“Pakistan ranks among the top 10 countries that are vulnerable to climate change and this report highlights that our agrarian economy will be affected by it. To decrease these impacts, it is extremely important that we include climate change adaptation in our agriculture extension programmes and train farmers to face these challenges,” said Hammad Naqi Khan CEO WWF-Pakistan.

“The production level of presently available varieties of wheat and rice will be significantly reduced as temperature level rises. Uncertainties in weather pattern will result in more drought as well as flooding.  The timing of rainfall is likely to change. These will result in shortage in food production,” said Ainun Nishat, Vice Chancellor, BRAC University Dhaka and expert on climate change in South Asia.

Climate change is posing a greater challenge to our health than we believe. This is revealed in the new research by international team of researchers as published in The Lancet. Climate change phenomenon is considered as a potential “catastrophic risk” to human health in terms of nutrition. Food insecurity, vector-borne diseases and air pollution is the direct result of environmental changes that we are seeing today.

Last month the FAO published a book entitled “Climate change and Food Systems” entailing global food security and trade. In the light of ample research the group of climate scientists and economists found the ravaging impacts of climate change on food and agriculture in developing countries imposing over the past two decades.

“Climate change is likely to exacerbate growing global inequality as the brunt of the negative climate effects is expected to fall on those countries that are least developed and most vulnerable,” said the book’s editor, Aziz Elbehri.

Pakistan’s agricultural production inputs are increasing at an alarming rate as compared to outputs. The fuel and fertilizers are becoming too expensive and growers are in massive loss. The flawed agricultural policies of the successive governments over the decades have completely ignored the farmers and agriculture sector.

Following their protest in Islamabad in June this, farmers protested in front of Punjab Assembly Lahore in late August as well, over cost of production and setting the prices for cash crops. They also took to the streets over the huge cost of production. The farmers cultivating cash crops are losing around Rs 75,000 ($750) per acre every year due to a huge gap between cost of production and the sale price. After a successful meeting with the Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the farmers ended their protest on the promises of fulfillment of their demands.

“Agriculture is the only business that gives returns in 5-6 months. Despite its essential role in the economy, the state is not focusing on farmers. We have huge stock of rice from last two years but have been unable to find any market. And the stock is getting rotten. This is despite the fact that rice is a part of food security,” said Khalid Mehmood Khokhar, President Pakistan Kisan Ittehad.

“There is no subsidy for our farmers and poor farmers are paying 17 percent General Sales Tax on each commodity. Cotton is not even paying back the agricultural inputs to the farmers. The total input per maund is 3,000 Rupees ($30) while the market rate for one maund of cotton is just rupees 23,00 ($23) – not even covering the input. Floods and scorching heat are further deteriorating the crop,” he further narrated.

Haroon Janjua is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is the 2014 International Green Apple Award winner. He can be reached on Twitter @JanjuaHaroon