Wheat production optimism evaporates amid hot weather

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THE early optimism for a record wheat harvest of 26.44 million tonnes for Pakistan now seems to be evaporating, as Punjab starts having a second opinion about its 20m tonnes contribution.

Officials in the Punjab agriculture department now concede that the province may not produce more than 19m tonnes of wheat owing to a number of negative factors that now affect the crop as it nears maturity.

If the Punjab’s yield drops to below 19m tonnes, it would be the lowest in the last five years and cause financial losses to farmers worth Rs32.20 billion. The production was 20m tonnes last years.

Moreover, experts and farmers fear the actual loss can be higher than official estimates.

However, both experts and the provincial agriculture officials agree on the factors leading to this crop scenario. Both believe that massive surface water shortage has affected the crop. Farmers say the crop, in fact, got only one full watering instead of the required three owing to persistent water shortages and limited rains.

The Punjab irrigation department’s record clarifies the magnitude of the shortages. According to its figures, the province placed a demand of 41,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) daily for the first 10 days of February but got only 12,200 cusecs. The next 10 days saw only 29,200 cusecs flowing in against the demand of 51,000 cusecs. In the last 10 days of the month, only 34,700 cusecs were supplied against the demand for 47,000 cusecs.

Punjab may lose more than one million tonnes and Sindh another half a million tonnes owing to several negative factors

The situation did not change in March, when only 29,400 and 23,200 cusecs were provided against the demand of 52,000 and 59,400 cusecs. One must not forget that the demand made by Punjab was already 36 per cent less than its historical usages as the Indus River System Authority had told the province to factor in national shortages while placing demand for water.

“With these kinds of supplies, the crop was bound to suffer some losses, and it has. The height of crop is less compared with the last year’s throughout the province, and farmers are waiting for harvesting to know the exact loss,” says Abad Khan of the Farmers Associates Pakistan (FAP).

What has magnified and expanded the impact of water shortage so far is less than normal rains throughout the life cycle of the crop and above-normal temperatures during March.

According to officials of the metrological department, the season has so far received 30pc less rains during the Rabi season, and temperature has gone up by two to three degrees Celsius above the normal March mercury, especially during the night.

Water shortages, less rains and high temperatures hit a crop, which had already suffered bad supplies of phosphatic fertilisers. The Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, or Suparco, in its February report on crops noted this phenomenon: “Another negative factor is the shortage in fertiliser supplies during early crop growth. A 30pc increase of nitrogen in January can almost compensate urea and other nitrogen fertiliser shortages in the start of season.

“About 80pc of the phosphate uptake by plants is generally done during the early six weeks of growth. The phosphate availability generally remained short during October-December and increased by 39pc in January. Such an incremental supply at a belated stage is not useful for wheat crop.”

According to farmers and officials, the late-sown crop is particularly vulnerable to high mercury in March. “Out of the 10.64m acres of targeted and actually sown area, 10.25m acres were sown by Nov 30 and the rest was late sowing,” says an official of Punjab Agriculture Department. The cane crisis delayed vacating of land and pushed a substantial chunk of crop into late sowing.

On the basis of all these negative factors, the farmers think that the Punjab may lose more than one million tonnes and Sindh another half a million tonnes. Therefore, the national yield may be a little less than 25m tonnes instead of the targeted 26.44m tonnes.

“But the trouble is that this loss may never be noted at provincial and national levels. When it actually hits farmers, they will be more concerned with disposing of the crop instead of finding time to lament and agitate the loss,” says Abad Khan of FAP. “The governments (both federal and provincial) may not even feel this loss because of huge carryover stocks that fill their coffers. But this will certainly result in farmers losing around Rs50bn, and that is the main worry of the community.”

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