Water scarcity to hit Rabi crops next

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THE severe water shortage cycle, which began early this year, continues: the country faced up to 50 per cent shortage early Kharif. According to calculations by the Indus River System Authority (Irsa), there are fears of a 38pc deficit for the Rabi season — compromising Pakistan’s entire crop cycle.

A little data for context: Irsa has calculated that against a 10-year average of 22.86 million acre feet (MAF), it will receive 18.19MAF in the next six months. During Rabi (Oct-March), the minimum shortage would be 33pc and maximum 43pc, averaging at 38pc.

As far as the water storage position is concerned, the country has started the season with the second lowest storage ever: 5.89MAF, which is only second to 5.43MAF in 2004.

However, in the first four days of the season, around 400,000MAF had already been lost as storage dipped to 5.5MAF last Thursday due to a dip in river flows.

While this scenario looks bad enough, farmers fear worse: “These are, at best, conservative estimates — kept low to make them look politically less explosive,” says Abad Khan of the central Punjab region. One can safely add around four to five per cent to these figures given the history of Irsa calculations.

Irsa officials themselves had been talking about a 45pc shortage a few days ago which they have now scaled down to 38pc.

Since, these are “likely figures”, they always contain a margin of error, which more often than not turns out to be on the negative side, he fears.

The Punjab Irrigation Department, as per its officials, has prepared a plan to deal with the situation and shared it with the Agriculture Department. According to it, the department will concentrate on only crucial watering — sowing, growing and maturity — periods and absorbing the deficit in between.

Of the three mentioned, the last watering, however, will largely depend on early next year rains, if they do come; otherwise, it will be a risky proposition. The metrological department has already warned of no, or negligible, rains for the rest of the year, which Irsa claims to have factored in its calculations.

As far as impact on the cropping cycle is concerned, the farmers, as always, fear more for the wheat crop — which is by far the biggest one for the season, spread over 20m acres across the country.

Agriculture officials, however, are not very worried as they think that they have enough water in the kitty to at least ensure sowing. “The country has 5.5MAF of water right now, which is more than sufficient to secure sowing of wheat,” says an extension officer of the Punjab Agriculture Department. However, cotton and sugarcane will face issues of varying levels, he concedes.

‘Since underground water in these areas is brackish and canal water almost missing, the sugar cane crop may see trouble,’ says Abad Khan, a grower based in the central Punjab region

Farmers from the central Punjab region, the rice growing belt, also feel safe. “All hybrid varieties and early basmati have already been harvested,” says Hamid Malhi, president of the Basmati Growers Association (BGA). Only two varieties (PS-II and Super) are in the field and need one more watering.

Historically, farmers do not get canal water for the last irrigation despite an increase in area under the crop (according to the Punjab Agriculture Department the area increased 4.5m acres to 4.7m acres this year). The department normally closes all canals around early October and farmers are left to tubewells for the last watering.

In the next fortnight, both these varieties will also be harvested so rice may not suffer much this year. However, if the (water shortage) trend continues, the crop’s long-term prospects will be greatly compromised, he warns.

The real trouble may come for another water guzzling crop — sugarcane — especially in core areas of south Punjab and along the river beds. “Since underground water in these areas is brackish and canal water almost missing, the crop may see trouble,” says Mr Khan, himself a cane grower.

The situation may worsen if frost arrives early next year. Official efforts have brought down sugarcane area by almost 10pc (according to official figures, the crop has been sown on 1.8m acres against 2.1m acres last year) but the total area under cultivation is still substantial with a massive water requirement that farmers will have to meet.

The country meanwhile has enough stocks to see it through for another year. The loss may not be felt at a national level, but individual trouble will be massive, he states.

Cotton may face some trouble in areas where a farmer may choose to continue growing the crop instead of planting wheat. Again, since cotton mainly lies in the brackish south zone, farmers may be forced to terminate the crop because of water issues.

“A major part of this area is fed from an arm of the Mangla Dam, where the crisis is particularly severe,” says Naeem Hotiana, a farmer from the Pakpattan area. The dam could not be filled this year and is standing at almost 30 feet below the level where it was last year on the corresponding day. Farmers understand the problem and may go for termination of the crop at a huge financial cost and opt for wheat, where water will at least be available for sowing, claims Naeem.

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