The dying orchards of Qilla Saifullah

Hamid Hussain reports from northwestern Balochistan, where climate change and poor water management are ravaging agriculture

The dying orchards of Qilla Saifullah
A decade ago, travelling through the Kanmetharzai tehsil of district Qilla Saifullah would give you a marvelous experience, especially in autumn. For the apple orchards would turn red, making the entire valley look like a romantic painting of a scenic valley. However, this is not the case anymore and the region which was once considered the ‘capital of apple-farming’ now gives a deserted appearance, with the majority of the apple orchards having completely vanished.

Tehsil Kanmetharzai of district Qila Saifullah is located at an altitude of 2,224 metres (7,295 feet) and receives several feet of snow every year. Most of the people are associated with orchards and farming for the last five decades. The apple orchards have completely vanished in Kanmetharzai and nearby areas, which has badly affected the local economy and the livelihoods of local people.

The local economy suffers great loss as orchards lie ruined
The local economy suffers great loss as orchards lie ruined

The underground water level has been dropping. Few farmers can afford water from tube wells through electricity generators

Locals say that apple production has not happened in almost the entire region except for a few orchards which are still producing the fruit. The owners of the latter can afford tube wells run by electricity generators. Experts consider this to be a direct consequence of climate change.

Qurban Ali Kakar, headmaster of the local Government Boys’ High School and owner of an apple orchard in Kanmetharzai, says that the region is famous for apple and apricot production. But, unfortunately, the lack of rainfall has sapped away at agriculture in much of the region and continues to drain groundwater across the region. The lack of rainfall or decrease thereof has led to a drought-like situation which has a devastating effect on the local communities and the surrounding environment. He said it has badly impacted the poorer communities because they don’t have other opportunities of making money.

Ground water levels have plummeted throughout Balochistan
Ground water levels have plummeted throughout Balochistan

Kakar further says that there would have been no issue of a shortage of water for orchards if the government had built small water reservoirs. He refers also to the karez, a human-made underground tunnel system that gathers groundwater, conveying it via gravity through tunnels to crops at the valley floor.

The karez system worked for the entire community of the region, but it was also discouraged and in its place, the modern electric tube well system was promoted in Balochistan. Farmers, drawn by government incentives, began digging tube wells. But now the underground water level has been dropping and very few farmers can afford to fetch water from tube wells through electricity generators.

An apple orchard owner from Muslim Bagh, Kalim Kakar, says that the government of Balochistan for the past many years, with the help of international donors, promoted tube wells to modernise the agricultural sector in the province. However, there is a serious issue with groundwater, which has dropped at an alarming rate in most of the districts in Balochistan.

He said the government didn’t build water reservoirs and now both karez and tubewells are getting dry because underground water is dropping at alarming rate. Only wealthy people can afford to operate a tube well because it needs electricity and they face almost 20 hours of power outage every day, he explains.

Kalim Kakar says: “There is a simple solution to this problem and that is building small dams which will raise the level of underground water and farmers would be able to fetch water from tube wells.”

Muhammad Sadiq, District Agricultural Officer at Qilla Saifullah says climate change was the root cause of the shortage of water. He said severe droughts across the region have affected hundreds of thousand people. According to him, the region has faced three consecutive bad monsoons. In 2015, the region saw less-than-normal levels of rainfall and this year the situation is the same, as the entire country has not received adequate rainfall over the past few months.

He says that the apple farmers are really worried about the situation because apple orchards don’t exist anymore and they don’t have any other source of income. He fears the situation would worsen with extreme changes in climate patterns.

Muhammad Sadiq further says that the district agriculture office of Qilla Saifullah conducted a survey in 2014-15 to calculate the losses to orchard farmers and provide recommendations to the government for possible solutions. According to the survey, around 80 percent of the orchards have vanished and the losses inflicted upon people are in billions. The survey, sure enough, suggests that the government must build small water dams which will store rainwater and eventually the water table would rise and people would be able to irrigate their orchards from tube wells and karez.

As an example, he points out the fact that the underground water level rose to 100 feet after the construction of a small dam in the Mohajir Camp area near Muslim Bagh. For him, it proves that if dams are built, the issue of irrigating apple orchards would be resolved in the region.

An environmental expert from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Balochistan, Muhammad Khan Kakar, says: “Orchards bring people and wildlife together. It’s about food, the culture behind them, and the heritage.”  He believes small traditional orchards could vanish from the region in the next decade if no action is taken to protect them.

He says the previous year was the hottest ever measured. Before this, the previous record was set in 2015; the one before that in 2014. Fifteen of the sixteen warmest years have occurred in the 21st century.

The environmental expert believes climate change is a reality, as every year the country sees floods, shortages of rainfall and extreme changes in weather patterns. Pakistan has witnessed, firsthand, the devastating effects of climate change. Catastrophic floods have displaced millions and severe droughts have put food security at some risk.

He feels that the issue of a lack of rainfall or a drought-like situation is not only a problem in Qilla Saifullah, but that it is an urgent countrywide issue. And he is confident that the federal and provincial governments can take measures which will minimise the damage from drought. Building small dams in regions like Kanmetharzai, announcing special incentives for farmers whose crops or orchards have been affected and scrupulously following the environmental protection policies in all developmental projects across the country could really make a difference, he hopes.

Hamid Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad