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Reducing paddy rice could aid water-scarce Pakistan

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 29 Oct 2013 15:45 GMT
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Men wash and boys collect water in Quetta, the provincial capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province. Quetta has been facing acute water shortages for the last six years as underground supplies deplete. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Aamir Saeed
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – To cope with growing water scarcity and curb greenhouse gas emissions, Pakistani scientists are pushing farmers to try planting rice directly in fields rather than transplanting paddy rice, a change that could cut water use by half.

Pakistan is one of the world’s most water stressed countries, and close to being classified as water scarce’ – has less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year, according to the Asian Development Bank.

To cope, scientists say Pakistan needs to introduce water-efficient crops, begin using modern irrigation technology and build more reservoirs. Such changes are particularly important because about 93 percent of the fresh water used each year in Pakistan goes to agriculture.

Nadeem Amjad, a natural resources member of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that his department was working on both water-efficient crops and modern irrigation techniques to save irrigation water.

“We have successfully tested a dry direct-seeding variety of rice at our research centers that saves around 60 percent of irrigation water,” he said, adding the technique and new rice variety is being distributed among selected farmers in different parts of the country.

FOURTH BIGGEST RICE PRODUCER

Pakistan is the world's fourth largest producer of rice after China, India and Indonesia. The average production of the crop stands around six million tonnes each year, with cultivation on over 2.5 million hectares.

Amjad said that conventional rice cultivation needs around 1,500 to 1,600 millimeters of water per acre while 700mm is sufficient to grow direct-seeded rice. He said the technique saves water in part by reducing seepage and percolation.

 “The direct-seeding technique is becoming popular among farmers because it also helps them save around 40 percent of the labour required for nursery raising, uprooting and transplanting of seedlings,” he said.

He said the production of direct-seeded rice crop is being estimated at 4.5 tonnes per hectare while traditional paddy rice production ranges between 4 tonnes and 5.5 tonnes depending on the variety of seed and weather conditions.

EMISSIONS, LABOUR REDUCTIONS

Experts say conventional transplanted rice, grown in flooded fields, is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which drive global warming. Climate change in turn may adversely affect water availability and farmers’ success in growing water-intensive transplanted crops like rice.

For its multiple advantages, ranging from saving water to cutting labour and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, direct seeding rice is fast becoming popular in numerous developing and developed economies of the world including the United States, Australia, China, India and Bangladesh, Amjad said.

Muhammad Yasin, director of the Climate Change, Alternative Energy and Water Resources Institute at the National Agricultural Research Center, said conventional rice farming in particular produces emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, two potent greenhouse gases.

But “direct-seeded rice farms” contribution to methane gas is almost negligible,” he said.

Yasin said his institute is working to introduce water-efficient varieties of sugarcane and cotton as well. He said Pakistan could save up to 50 percent of the water being used for irrigation by effective management and by using sophisticated irrigation technology but to make the change will require “sincerity and commitment both by farmers and government officials.”

He said low water availability is one of the main constraints in increasing per acre yields in Pakistan and bringing more area under cultivation. The per capita availability of water in the country has fallen from 5,650 cubic meters in 1951 to 1,000 cubic meters in 2013, he said.

50 PERCENT RISE IN DEMAND BY 2025

Pakistan’s national water policy predicts that the population of Pakistan will increase by almost 50 percent by 2025 and demand for water will increase proportionately. Per capita water will decrease to 800 cubic meters by 2025 if effective and timely measures are not taken, according to the policy.

A report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature-Pakistan says that “modern irrigation technologies for field crops and orchards could help increase water use efficiencies to 90 percent.” The total irrigated land in the country is 18 million hectares, but the area under crops could be expanded to 26 million hectares if water was better used, the report noted.

Yasin said modern irrigation technology is expensive, so the government has committed to pay 70 percent of the cost for each drip or sprinkler system to encourage farmers to use the technology. The installation of drip and sprinkle irrigation systems costs around $2,500 per hectare.

“The installation of the drip and sprinkle irrigation technology is underway in different parts of the country. More than 10,000 farmers have received the technology so far and it is an ongoing process,” he said.

The National Agricultural Research Center Islamabad has installed modern centre pivot sprinkler and drip irrigation systems on 76 hectares of land at different places across the country for research and demonstration purposes.

MORE CROPS, NOT MORE WATER

Arshad H. Abbasi, an adviser on water and energy at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, an independent research organisation in Islamabad, said what is most important is breaking the myth that more water put on crops results in more yield.

“Farmers should be educated on efficient water usage and modern irrigation techniques to save water,” he said.

He said that Pakistan has the capacity to store just 7 percent of the country’s rainwater and stream flow each year, something that needs to be improved.

“Pakistan is also wasting two-third of its water by following traditional agricultural practices and conservation methods,” Abbasi said.

He said Pakistan is in dire need of building new water reservoirs as water resources are shrinking while the population is growing at a rapid pace.

India, a neighbouring country and arch-rival of Pakistan, has built more than 5,000 large dams in the past 60 years while Pakistan has built only 149 dams, he said. China, also a neighbour of Pakistan, is believed to have built more than 80,000 dams, the highest in the world, followed by the United States with 75,000 dams.

Abbasi said that by building large dams Pakistan can not only conserve the 25 million acre-feet water of water that runs into the sea annually but also ensure water security for its people and agriculture.

Aamir Saeed is a journalist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at aamirsaeed@ymail.com

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