Drought threatens crops

Post Source: Dawn Economic and Business and Economic Review

By Ahmad Fraz Khan – Monday, 01 Feb, 2010

AFTER suffering from four months of progressive meteorological and hydrological drought, the country has entered the final stage of “agriculture drought.” It threatens crop failure, livestock losses and a human disaster for those who depend on canal and rain water for drinking and household use.
Agriculture drought occurs when low rainfall, soil water reserves and evaporation losses combine to hurt crops’ growth process.

According to the meteorological department, two preceding droughts (meteorological and hydrological) occur when rainfall is 40 per cent below the expected rainfall in any area for an extended period and a sustained deficit in surface runoff below normal conditions respectively. Most parts of the country are under severe meteorological drought conditions because no appreciable rainfall has occurred over the last four months.

The country has been experiencing hydrological drought because the availability of surface water in major reservoirs has aggravated due to 30 per cent below normal rain during the monsoon and persistent long dry spell afterwards.

Given these worsening conditions, the agriculture planners, who hitherto had not lost hopes, now fear serious failure of lintel, peanuts, gram and wheat crops in barani (rain-fed) areas, and worry about irrigated areas. Though they are reluctant to estimate final losses in all the three areas, they do confess that it is a “threatening scenario and appears to be beyond redemption.”

There is no available remedy for the situation, except for praying for celestial intervention for rains. The planners confess they can “recommend only cosmetic measures, which, they say, would not have any impact on crops.”

Of all the crops, major sufferer will be wheat. Punjab is already reducing its estimates from 19 million tons to around 17 million tons, and fears further revision. Its worry is that the crop of more than 60 days would hit the booting – make or break – stage by mid-February. If the current conditions continue, the crop would be further endangered.

The official advisory of applying two per cent urea and potassium chloride (KCL) solution, spray of anti-transpirant at vegetative stage – a costly proposition though – sprinkling, mulching or hoeing are beneficial but in no way insurance against drought damages.

In barani areas, wheat acreage was already down by 19 per cent (or 500,000 acres) this season. Out of the sown 1.3 million acres, around 400,000 acres already stand severely damaged. The rest still have some hope, though fading by the day. How they withstand termite attack, a normal condition in drought, would determine final yield from the area.

Gram, the fourth largest crop that covers around three million barani acres, is going to be another causality. Punjab hoped to cross its target of 553,000 tons, with average per acre yield of 6.7 to 6.8 maunds per acre. But for the crop would be in flowering stage in another week’s time, and without water.

The country may end up importing even lintels and pulses next year, further swelling its Rs300 billion import bill of items that fall under “food group.”

Sugarcane crop, which would be sown next month, might be the third causality. A combination of factors – severe water stress and lack of quality seed – may create a big hole in cane production next year. The crop has tumbled over the last two years with a drop of 30 per cent in 2007-08. Another six per cent is gone this year. The cane prices are up by 100 to 150 per cent this year. If water stress persists, it would keep the sugar market even more unstable next year.

With El-Nino effects now considered as a part of life throughout the world, in countries like Pakistan agriculture needs to be at the centre of development strategy.

Along with building new water resources, which should be the most essential part of the new agriculture strategy, the country must develop a total new range of seeds for almost every crop. These seeds have to be resistant to three stresses – water shortage, temperature and salts.

Once these seeds are developed, their production protocols would have to be taken to farmers and the Extension Wings trained accordingly. The current drought must provide basis for that crucial first step, because Pakistan cannot afford failure on this front. It is time for piecing together what is required for a new kind of agriculture.

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