TAXILA, Pakistan (AlertNet) - Farmer Ahmed Khan had suffered four dry winters since October 2008, so deciding whether to sow wheat in 2012 was a difficult choice.
“I was really caught in a cobweb of confusion,” said Khan, a wheat farmer in the historic town of Taxila, 23 km (14.5 miles) northwest of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city.
He feared all his hard work would be in vain yet again, bringing more financial losses. But with no other options to earn a living, the 41-year-old risked preparing his seven acres and planted his wheat seed in mid-November.
“It is just a blind leap of faith,” Khan told AlertNet, hoeing a furrow on his land.
Unpredictable weather patterns have put many Pakistani farmers in a quandary about cultivating traditional crops. Climatic stresses - particularly drought and floods - have decimated yields and caused crops to fail in recent years.
There are few agricultural extension services that could help farmers adapt to erratic weather conditions by training them in new methods or recommending alternative crops.
Wheat is normally sown in Pakistan between Oct. 15 and Dec. 15. Farmers in rain-fed parts of the South Asian nation then wait for rainy spells in December and January, which are decisive for their yields.
This winter, luck favoured Khan, and his stress turned to exuberance when rain arrived in the first week of December.
“Although I felt a surge of anxiety about economic losses from possible crop failure if it didn’t rain, rains came suddenly and drenched my thirsty farmland,” he recalled with a small smile. “This unexpected downpour was really more than a delight for us farmers.”
Not for all of them, however. Muzamil Bilal, another wheat farmer in Taxila, regretted his decision not to plant wheat.
Consecutive dry winters in 2008 and 2009 had convinced him not to sow wheat in the 2010 and 2011 winter seasons. He had thought 2012 would be the same.
But after a three-day spell of rain in mid-December, he decided to act quickly, ploughing and sowing wheat on his six acres. His rapid response paid off, as further rains arrived at the end of December and then again in early January.
Other farmers have quit the business, deeming the prospects too uncertain.
“I cannot afford to take risks planting wheat when I am unsure about the weather conditions,” said Sami Ahmed, a former farmer who now runs a flour mill in Bahawalpur town, some 845 km (525 miles) northeast of Karachi city. Ahmed decided to invest nearly $1,200 of his own capital in the mill, and says the move is paying off, as it brings him a regular income.
Yet for the poorest wheat farmers who have abandoned cultivating their lands, the choices are few. Some families are migrating to nearby urban areas where they eke out a living working in brick kilns and hotels, or even begging.
DRIER CONDITIONS EXPECTED
Weather experts at the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) in Islamabad say that, for the last five years, rainfall has been delayed until January. The winter rains have traditionally begun in the second week of December, but their timing started to become disturbed almost a decade back.
PMD weather scientist Ghulam Rasul linked this winter’s rains to colder temperatures across the Middle East and China. As a result, westerly winds have moved along lower latitudes, bringing large amounts of rain and snow to Pakistan, he explained. But there is no guarantee of good rains in the next few years, he added.
“Future projections of climate models indicate that the amount of rainfall is likely to drop in early winter during the coming winter seasons. Therefore, there is a higher probability that relatively dry conditions will prevail in November and December in the coming years,” Rasul said.
This year, the wet winter season will boost wheat yields, and could cut costs for farmers by at least Rs10 billion ($103 million), said Muhammad Ibrahim Mughal, Lahore-based chairman of Agri Forum Pakistan, a networking platform for farmers.
“(During the drought) they had to spend a lot on diesel and electricity to run tube-wells to water their farmland. Therefore, they have saved this money as their lands have been soaked by the rains,” he told AlertNet.
This winter season, across Pakistan, wheat has been sown on 20 million acres, fodder on 1 million, vegetables on 2.6 million, gram on 2.5 million, orchards on 2.6 million and other crops on 1 million acres. Over 90 percent of land in rain-fed areas in the centre and north of the country depends on precipitation to water crops. And thanks to this winter’s good rains, crop yields are expected to rise by five to eight percent.
Wheat is a critically important crop in Pakistan’s agricultural economy, accounting for 3 percent of GDP and earning around $600 million in foreign exchange reserves through exports each year.
In Pakistan, the total land area under cultivation is around 23.4 million hectares, of which over 8.6 million hectares are sown with wheat. Some 2.6 million hectares of wheat fields are located in rain-fed areas – mostly concentrated on the northeastern Potohar Plateau, the northern mountains in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, northern Punjab province and the Baluchistan plateau.
Rain-fed areas contribute about 12 percent of the 24 million tonnes of wheat produced annually in the country.
Last year, Pakistan faced water shortages of 40 percent in its river system and winter rains were 30 to 35 percent below normal, despite heavy monsoon rains in some parts of the country in early September.
Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, former director-general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, blamed last year’s dry winter on El-Nino conditions in the Pacific Ocean, which persisted from June 2011 to the summer of 2012, reducing Pakistan’s winter rainfall by 30 to 40 percent.
According to government crop reports, wheat production last April was 1.8 million tonnes short of the 25-million-tonne national production target, with 60 percent of the yield losses occurring in rain-fed areas.
HELPING FARMERS ADAPT
Weather scientist Rasul said adapting to increasingly variable climate conditions is difficult but not impossible. Meteorologists, agricultural scientists and extension workers all need to play a part in educating farmers in how to cope with such scenarios, he added.
For example, farms in rain-fed areas should be encouraged to harvest rainwater and conserve soil moisture, Rasul suggested.
And instead of looking only at seasonal predictions, they should make use of three to five day weather forecasts, which are more accurate and useful at sowing and harvesting times, he said.
The accuracy of such short-range forecasts has improved to 90 percent in Pakistan, and farmers can follow them confidently to achieve better returns, Rasul said.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are development reporters based in Islamabad.