By Qurat ul ain Siddiqui
KARACHI: The massive floods that began to hit Pakistan in late July have afflicted the country extremely. Seventy-nine of the country’s124 districts (24 in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, 19 in Sindh, 12 in Punjab, 10 in Balochistan and seven each in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan) have been affected. Official estimates say 1,600 people have been killed and more than 17 million are affected by the catastrophe. The disaster has not only led to losses in terms of human casualties and large scale displacement but has also damaged the agricultural country’s major crops over an estimated area of more than 1.38 million acres which constitutes 30 per cent of Pakistan’s agricultural land.
Wheat, Pakistan’s most important produce, has been severely damaged in the floods. Data from the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock reveals that 44,896 tonnes of wheat in Punjab and 80,823 tonnes in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa have been totally spoilt. Moreover, in Sindh, some 5,41,696 tonnes of wheat are estimated to have been destroyed, whereas, in Balochistan, the overall damage to crops has occurred over an area of 321,651 acres.
However, government and agriculture circles are now considering the possibility that seeds planted after the floodwaters recede, may lead to a bumper harvest in the following sowing seasons in flood-affected regions.
Dr Abdul Rashid, Member Monitoring and Evaluation, Punjab Agricultural Research Board, explains: Flood-affected fields will receive a layer of fertile soil from the floodwaters…these waters, coming from high hills, bring with them leaves of trees and remains of wild grass which are rich in organic matter. When this water reaches the plains, its speed slows down and rich soil particles start to settle in, leaving a good layer of fertile soil.
“This fertile layer will result in good yields in the coming years,” Dr Rashid told Dawn.com.
According to former Federal Minister for Food, Agriculture and Livestock Khair Muhammad Junejo, before the development of irrigation systems and barrages, it was the floods which nourished farmlands. Junejo, who has farmland in Sindh’s Sanghar district, said the floods’ “overall effect for land will be beneficial.”
Crops can be planted once the waters recede but while the upcoming wheat-planting season of Rabi is feared to be at risk in some farming regions, Dr Rashid says eventually “the floods will recharge the water in the soil and underground water resources will increase”.
“This underground water will also be of better quality (due to recharging of good water) and will be beneficial for future farming,” he said.
In the case of salt-affected areas, standing water will “help in improving soil health by leaching down soluble salts to layers beneath the crop root zone”, Dr Rashid said, adding that this improvement in soil health will result in better crop production.
However, Dr Shamsuddin Tunio, professor at the Faculty of Crop Production at the Sindh Agriculture University, Tandojam, is of the opinion that although “plain lands may benefit in terms of fertility…the floods erode away rich layers of soil and if water stands for a long time in the land, the next season’s crop may not be grown”.
The problem of soil erosion is particularly visible in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province where hundreds of acres of agricultural lands have been washed away, destroying the region’s rice, sugarcane and maize plantations. Rendering the farmlands “almost uncultivable,” the condition is likely to lead to even more difficulties for the farmers.
Erosion and submerged conditions may also disturb the farmlands’ fertility leading to water logged soils, which will then need proper rehabilitation, Dr Tunio told Dawn.com.
“The dual problems of water logging and salinity which had already been affecting crop yields in parts of Sindh will only get worse with the current floods,” he said.
Dr Rashid, concurring with the assessment, noted that water logged farmlands may encounter difficulty. These patches are present in “a few areas in Sindh…but other than that, there is little or no water logging.”
The problem is likely to affect the process of cultivation this year, as “water has not yet receded from Sindh’s affected districts”.
“Forty per cent of Sindh is still submerged…the districts of Shikarpur, Jacobabad, Dadu, Kashmore, Larkana and Shahdadkot have been badly affected and chances are that the Rabi crops will not be planted this year,” Secretary Agriculture Sindh Agha Jan Akhtar said.
Fears and incentives
Deen Mohammad, a displaced farmer from Shikarpur district and a father of six young children, says so far the government has not approached him regarding his work as a small farmer.
Mohammad, who currently resides in a relief camp on the outskirts of Karachi, is reluctant to return to his village and fears that he might not receive enough assistance “to be able to make ends meet” if and when he does go back.
But while the assistance to farmers has been seemingly delayed, the government, currently more tied to providing immediate relief to displaced survivors, is also “discussing incentives for farmers”.
“We are discussing incentives and measures such as provision of seeds for free or on subsidised rates…we do have the scale of destruction in mind and we are doing as much as we can to contain it and hopefully turn it around,” Akhtar told Dawn.com.
Moreover, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently announced that it has completed the procurement of seeds for the upcoming Rabi season.
The seeds are to be distributed to 200,000 farming families. However, the damage caused by the disaster is likely to require a much more concerted effort on part of the authorities since farmers are likely to face a severe crisis of infrastructure and farm system management in the coming months.
“This will require huge funds…proper financial support and credit to manage farm systems and facilities, including land damage,” Dr Tunio said.
After having fulfilled the basic needs of “shelter, food, clean drinking water and health supplies, the government should make available to farmers a free Agri-package including seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, small tools and instruments”, he said, adding that “Agri-credit for rehabilitation of farm facilities should also be provided for the flood-hit farmers’ subsistence”.