Rains brighten crop prospects

Post Source: Dawn Economic and Business Review – By Ahmad Fraz Khan
Monday, 15 Feb, 2010

 

THE recent rainfall, breaking the four-month drought spell, has created some silver lining on the agriculture horizon. The rains have provided water at the critical stage of wheat maturity, improved storage situation and brightened the prospects of future filling of dams. The drought-breaking downpour, which was bigger than the last monsoon – producing over 500,000 cusecs water in first three days, besides increasing the base flow of all rivers – helped mitigate the drought effects to a great extent in some areas.

On February 8, three storages – Tarbella, Mangla and Chashma – held 0.99 million acre feet (MAF) water, which went up to 1.47MAF by February 11. During these days, flow at River Chenab touched 108,500 cusecs against routine flow of 6,000 to 7,000 cusecs.

Similarly, River Jhelum also crossed 120,800 cusecs, River Indus 70,200 cusecs and Kabul 34,500 cusecs against their January flows of 5,000 to 10,000 cusecs. They jointly increased storage by 500,000 cusecs and have increased base flow that could bring more relief in the next week or so.

Most important, the system produced massive snowfall in the catchment areas of both dams and improved chances, which were severely compromised till the end of January, of filling next season. With current amount of snowfall in Kashmir region, the month of May might not be as bad as perceived earlier.

All this augurs well for agriculture, which was threatened with crop failure till the end of last month on water account. Though the current spell has not entirely removed drought effects in all areas of the country, it has certainly left healthy effect on Punjab, especially the rain-fed areas.

Five of eight divisions, falling in central and upper parts, in Punjab – Lahore, Gujranwala, Sargodha, Faisalabad and Rawalpindi – received heavy showers to avoid most threatened drought effects. It was a mixed blessing for Sahiwal region.

Southern Punjab also received rains ranging from one to five millimeters. All of these are wheat-growing areas, and the crop was at booting stage – desperately needing some water.

With rains providing some water to central and upper Punjab and improving dams’ picture, the irrigation authorities now need to take water to those areas where it rained less, even if has to be done at the cost of other areas. The areas include Southern belt – Bahawalpur, Multan and Rahimyar Khan Divisions – that form food basket of Punjab. The focus, which has been even up till now, should now shift to these divisions because if crops fail there, which would, unless some extra-ordinary steps are taken. The province might not be able to achieve agriculture targets, especially of food security.

The provincial irrigation authorities now need to redraw their supply plans. Fortunately, water requirements in these areas are identical because of similarity of weather. Thus, instead of supplying water on rotation basis, as planned earlier, they must be given continued supply until crops are saved there.

Granted that it would be a tricky exercise for the province as almost half of the area depends on supplies from the Indus arm (Chashma-Jhelum link canal), where Sindh has its own reason to advocate closing supplies. Punjab and Sindh have already locked their horns over supplies from the Indus. Feeding some areas from the Mangla arm are simply impossible or very expensive in terms of water losses. But the areas must be fed to save crop there.

On positive side, the country might be able to achieve its gram target of 650,000 tons, which was impossible without the current spell of rains. The entire crop falls in the rain-fed areas, which had been without water for the last four months. The cost of crop failure could have been huge as it could have added a billion rupees or so in the food import bill.

The persistent drought in these areas has wiped off wheat crop on around 400,000 acres. If March remains cool and some residual moisture survives, the farmers can profit by sowing the groundnuts by early March.

The current spell also drives home one point very strongly: our total dependence on the Mother Nature for farming. Had it not rained in February, or they were delayed by another fortnight, the country could have been in for a massive, some say simply unaffordable, economic trouble. It underscores the cost of ill-planning on water front.

It is time for water planners to reassess the whole situation and come up with a plan that meets the current and future agriculture requirements. The weather phenomenon is expected to become more and more erratic by the day if the metrological pundits are to be believed. Pakistan’s water plans are at least 30 years behind to meet the current weather variations, leave alone changing future requirements. It is a big mess, getting bigger and deeper by the day.

Water conservation measures need to be taken along with developing new reservoirs. Currently, the country does not have enough stores to keep water and absorb weather shocks.

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