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Growing more rice 'unviable' in water-short Pakistan

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 10 Jul 2014 07:30 GMT
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A labourer harvests cotton in a flooded field on the outskirts of Ghotki district during Pakistan's 2010 devastating floods. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Saleem Shaikh.

GHOTIKI, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the northeast corner of Ghotki, a district in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, farmer Ali Usman switches on his diesel-powered pump to water his nine-hectare (22 acre) paddy rice field.

Until 2007, his fields were planted with cotton. But like many farmers in the district  - the second largest cotton producing area in Sindh – he has switched to rice, convinced that it is more resilient to the country’s increasing flooding and erratic rains.

“I grew cotton for almost 45 years and reaped good profits from it. In the past the crop survived even drought-like conditions, poor rains or low irrigation supplies,” Usmani said.

But over the last decade, heavy rains have damaged his cotton, particularly when it was near harvest in October and November. Shifting to rice has helped, he said.

But experts worry that a large-scale shift to rice in southern Pakistan could ultimately be a failed adaptation to worsening climate impacts. The levels of underground aquifers that feed agricultural irrigation are dropping, as is the flow of the Indus River, a lifeline for Pakistan’s agriculture.

That is quickly turning Pakistan into one of the world’s most water-stressed countries – and a place where planting more water-hungry rice may not make sense.

‘DISMAL FUTURE SCENARIO’

“Give the dismal future scenarios of water availability in the country, it will be unviable or very hard for farmers to sustain rice,” warned Pervaiz Amir, an agro-economist and water expert at the Pakistan Water Partnership, a chapter of the Global Water Partnership.

That message has not gotten through to farmers Sanghar, the largest cotton growing area in Sindh province, at least for now.

"Almost half of the cotton area is now under rice in Sanghar, where rice was unknown to farmers until 2008," Ali Nawaz Khan, Sindh’s agriculture minister, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

Saqib Ahmed Soomro, secretary of the agriculture department, said his department was “deeply worried” about the shift, which had seen cotton acreage fall by 40 percent in Sanghar since 2010-2011, and overall losses of 25,000 hectares of cotton in the province.

In Sindh, cotton is now sown on 600,000 to 650,000 hectares while rice is sown on 700,000 to 750,000 hectares, according to the agriculture department, while four years ago the situation was almost the reverse, Soomro said.

TWICE AS MUCH WATER

That is adding up to increased demand for water. Rice needs almost twice as much water per hectare to grow effectively, agricultural experts say, something that is probably not sustainable.

In 1945, the Indus River system that feeds Pakistan’s agriculture flowed at 194 million acre-feet a year. Now that has dropped to 94 acre-feet a year, Amir said, quoting reports of the Indus River System Authority in Lahore and senior officials in the Federal Water and Power Ministry.

Farmers, who use around almost 98 percent of the country’s fresh water, will also have to increasingly share it with growing cities and industries, experts warned.

That means growing rice in Pakistan is going to get increasingly hard in the future, warned Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, vice president of the World Meteorological Department for the Asia region.

Erratic rainfall means underground aquifers will not recharge effectively while they continue to be overused, he said. And slowing river flows will put “paddy farmers in particular and cotton, wheat, sugarcane and vegetable farmers (also) in a quagmire and make cultivation of crops challenging,” he said.

Amir said adopting water-smart farming techniques will be crucial to keeping harvests up in Pakistan.

“There is a pressing need to adopt smart farming techniques which – among other things – stress water efficient farm technology to sow more crops per cubic meter of water,” he said. That will help “cope with the emerging water scenario for Pakistan.”

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development science correspondents based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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