Wheat Farmers better buckle-up in the face of climate change


LAHORE: Pakistan government’s lax attitude regarding countering the effects of Climate Change on its wheat crop can cause severe food shortage in the country over the next decade because of significant changes in rainfall and river flow patterns.

Pakistan is an agrarian economy. According to Economic Survey Of Pakistan 2016, the estimated land, on which wheat is cultivated, is 9045 thousand hectares and per hectare wheat yield varies between 2600 kg and 27500 kilograms. Moreover, per head consumption of wheat in Pakistan is about 120 kg which marks the importance of this food crop.

Wheat is traditionally sown in the plains at the advent of winter season, preferably between October-November. This has been done for centuries in this area keeping in view the temperature, rainfall timing and river flows. The winter rain-spell, in the past was known to occur between November and December, according to records available on the Meteorological Department’s website. However, the trend has seen a major shift.

“The country has witnessed a significant, if not dramatic, shift of weather events in recent past due to climate change. These changes include the veering of the country’s winter season. The winter season in Pakistan traditionally started from mid-October, peaked during December and part of January while moderately warm weather and the spring season started end of February and start of March. The situation, however, has changed”, said Pakistan Meteorological (MET) Director General Department Dr Ghulam Rasul.

Rasul explained how over the past two decades especially, the pattern of weather in Pakistan has been drastically affected by climate change.

“The winter rains have shown a delayed behavior. The winter season peaks late in January now while rain spell happens in late February March”, said the Pakistan Meteorological Department Head.

“I understand that our chief interest right now is wheat, but it’s important to point out that the entire Monsoon season in the country has not only shifted its calendar but has also shifted north-eastward. This is an alarming phenomenon which is going to affect the rice crop in a bog way as well”, Rasul explained further.

Wheat is characterized as a C3 crop. This category is most responsive to ‘Climate Change’ as compared with other crops. Rice, oats and barley fall under the same category.

While the top official regarding climate in the country seemed worried, there were those who seemed rather unfazed by the issue.

Wheat farmer and Wheat Growers Association (WGA) President Chaudhry Hamid Malhi, had a very different view regarding this weather development.  ‘This delayed winter has actually helped the wheat-crop. The shift of winter and the consequent moisture actually helps the wheat grain to grow healthier’, he said. As far as the rain is concerned, the shift is not that drastic, he added.

‘I don’t believe there can be a shortage of wheat in the country because it is a crop subsidized by the government which incentivizes the farmer to sow it over greater area. The yield too isn’t facing any problems; in fact it is improving, if anything. I am not saying that there has been no effect of climate change, but right now it is not significant enough to cause major threat’, he said.

To make sense of this seeming disconnect between the alarm expressed by MET Department head and WGA President, Visiting Faculty at AgWeatherNet Washington State University and currently a Professor at University of Agriculture Faisalabad Dr Fahad Rasul was contacted. Fahad has several researches in the domain of ‘Crop management Under Stressful Environments’.

‘Weather events mostly are a very gradual and very incremental phenomenon, which is very deceptive for ill-informed farmers. This information/ knowledge gap can be a dangerous catalyst. The shift of seasons in Pakistan is somehow something that has announced itself on the scene and is very clearly qualifiable and quantifiable, he said.

Dr Fahad explained, “This late winter and late rains mean that both the rain-fed and irrigated wheat crop will be affected. The rainfed portion is some 20 per cent of the total wheat production of the country. This 20 per cent will start receiving less and less rain over the years at the time the crop needs it the most. Instead, these rains will shift closer to the harvest time, when they are actually counterproductive”, he said.

Elaborating further, he said, “This shift is double jeopardy for the winter crop because the canal irrigated wheat will take a hit too. The water available for the cultivation of wheat in Pakistan is 26 MAF (million acre feet) which is still 28.6 per cent lower than the normal requirement of water. The shift of winter down the calendar means slower glacial melt at that time of the year and therefore the irrigated agri-land will also take a hit due to water shortage.’

The effects of the winter shift have already started showing its effects due to slower glacial melt during the aforementioned time. According to Meteorological Department’s data Tarbela Dam water level reached dangerously low levels and water level in the country’s biggest Mangla dam’s reservoir receded to dead level of 1040 feet, which was unprecedented for end of March period.

Fahad was not the only professional convinced that Climate Change has started driving Pakistan towards food insecurity.

Prof Dr Pervez Zamurrad Janjua, PhD from Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg and author of a research on ‘Impact of Climate Change on Wheat Production in Pakistan’, believed that threat of food insecurity to Pakistan, especially its wheat crop, is real.

“Chief factors of Climate Change affecting Agricultural productivity include rainfall pattern, temperature hike, changes in sowing and harvesting dates, water availability, evapotranspiration and land suitability. Also the impact of climate change on agriculture is manifolds including diminishing of agricultural output and shortening of growth period for crops”, he said.

‘On the basis of variance decomposition analysis the values of the area under wheat cultivation and the climate change variables cause 30 per cent and 34 per cent variation in wheat production, respectively. Or in layman terms the wheat production in Pakistan will be cut at least by almost one third, if not more. Considering the country’s population growth rate of over two per cent, which means an additional 40 million, this shortage will effectively be 50 per cent, if the government departments fail to act’, Janjua concluded.

Punjab produces over 70 per cent of wheat in the country and the government departments have vowed to be aware and proactive regarding optimizing production in view of Climate Change in the region. However, their outreach to the farmer regarding mitigating the effects of these changes has been questionable.

‘We’ve never witnessed any government official in our area, informing us of any measures regarding the Climate Change issue’, said Ziaullah Khan Niazi, a wheat farmer from Sherman Khel, near Mianwali, Punjab. ‘The government is mostly focused on incentivizing more cultivation of wheat through subsidies, which too is such a complicated and hectic process, that I prefer selling my wheat to private buyers’, he added.

When contacted, Punjab Secretary Agriculture Muhammad Mahmood said that he and his team are aware of the threats of climate change and have already devised a comprehensive strategy to deal with it. Contradictory to the reality shared by the farmers on ground, he said that the department had been dispatching instructions to farmers over Whatsapp messenger and that special outreach programs too were in the offing. He said that the department had actually redesigned the cultivation and harvesting calendar to tune it in tandem with the Climate Change. However, when the concerned section of the department was requested for the altered calendar, the concerned person said that he couldn’t share it as it was still ‘work-in-progress’.


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