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Water shortage and agriculture

By Syed M. Aslam
Apr 09 - 15, 2001

Despite the declining contribution to the GDP over the last 25 years, agriculture still contributes over 25 per cent to the GDP, employs 44 per cent of the work force and remains the major source of foreign exchange earnings for Pakistan.

The persistent water shortage over the years has resulted in acute water availability across the country at present. It has affected the arid province of Sindh in a more pronounced way. The summer crop season, Kharif, started on the first of this month on a precarious note with only one-fourth of the water available in Sindh which is not even enough to meet the requirement of the cotton cropping season which also started on April 1. The present water availability will be insufficient to meet the needs of cotton cropping beyond the 15th of this month.

By early this month only 10,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second, a unit to measure running water) was available in Sindh compared to a requirement of 40,000 cusecs. The demand will increase to traditional 125,000 cusecs over the next few months when rice cropping season starts on May 15.

PAGE talked to Secretary Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Sindh, Hashim Leghari, about the impact the acute water shortage is expceted to take on the province. The following are the excerpts of the talk.

The tentative target for wheat crop has been reduced by 30 per cent this year from 3 million metric tonnes to 2.5 million tonnes initially and 2 million tonnes recently with the beginning of harvesting season in many areas of the province early this month. The reduction in tentative target is based on the study conducted last year, which also witnessed a water shortage, though not as severe as is the case presently.

The government monitors one representative crop in each of the two main seasons wheat in Rabi (winter crop season) and Cotton in Kharif. The study showed that despite 60 per cent less availability of water last year, the wheat cultivation area in the province decreased by only 29 per cent bad but still less severe proportionately. In theory, the 60 per cent water shortage could had resulted in a similar reduction in the wheat cultivation area. However, water conservation plans, and alternate water supply measures such as tube wells, judicious use of water and information imparted by the agriculture department over Radio/TV/pamphlets to the farmers helped avoid the major disaster.

Sindh plays a significant role in the cultivation and production of wheat. Of the record 21.078 million tonnes wheat produced in the country during 1999-2000, 3 million tonnes or 15 per cent came from Sindh which also contributes over 13 per cent to the total wheat cultivation area of 8.463 million hectares in the country. Sindh is the second top wheat cultivating and producing province after Punjab which contributes 72 per cent in terms of area and 78 per cent in terms of production of the commodity respectively.

With the beginning of wheat harvesting season last week in many areas of Sindh it is too early to say anything about how much of the tentative target, revised downwardly twice, would be achieved. However, the province is expected to produce the revised tentative target of 2 million tonnes or two-third of the initial target of 3 million tonnes.


Just as wheat is monitored as the representative Rabi crop, Cotton is monitored as the representative crop of the Kharif season.

In 1999-2000 cotton, the all important cash crop, was cultivated over 3.002 million hectares in the country. Like wheat, Sindh plays a significant role in cotton- not as much in terms of area but in terms of production. This is primarily due to high per unit area yield compared to Punjab, the biggest cotton growing province both in terms of area and production.

Over 78 per cent or 8.804 million of the record 11.240 million bales (35 pounds each) of cotton produced in the country during 1999-2000 came from Punjab. The second biggest share or 20 per cent or 2.3 million bales was contributed by Sindh. Despite being cultivated in a comparative smaller areas, the per hectare yield of cotton in Sindh far exceeds the national average as well as that in Punjab.

In 1998-99 per hectare cotton yield in Sindh was 576 kilograms per hecatre which was far above the national average of 512 k/hectare and 494 k/hectare in Punjab. Despite the acute water shortage the next year, the per hectare cotton yield in Sindh still managed to increase to 638 kilograms though remaining marginally below the 643 average in Punjab. The substantial increase in per hectare cotton yield in Punjab was attributed primarily to better pest management measures while the comparative low increase in Sindh was due primarily to acute water shortage and low inputs.

With the beginning of cotton sowing season April 1 and the acute water shortage which is feared not enough to last beyond April 15, the cotton cultivation in Sindh is looking at a imminent disaster. This has resulted in the proposed delayed sowing of cotton beyond the prescribed dates which differ from area to area for as late as May. The delayed sowing, needless to say, will result in low yield.

Measures have been taken to introduce new varieties of cotton from Punjab on trial basis such as FH 900, 901 and DH 118 for the first time in Sindh. Measures are also taken to expand the area under cultivation of such varieties as Nayab 78, CRIS 9 (a new variety developed by Cotton Research Institute), Chandni, Marvi and Shahbaz.

A water conservancy plan made by the Department of Agriculture Sindh proposes reducing the supply of water for various crops. It suggests reducing the availability of water for cotton from 36 acre inch to 24-26 acre inch the level of water standing in the cotton field throughout the season. Similar proposals to reduce the availability of water for Rice and Sugarcane from the traditional 76 acre inch and 96 acre inch respectively. The farmers of Sindh has to make do with the lesser quantity of water to lessen the otherwise devastation imminent.

The crisis has forced the relevant authorities to take all possible measures humanly possible to lessen the agricultural damage from the severe shortage of water. Rice and sugarcane requires much larger quantities of water compared to wheat and the measures are aimed at ensuring that water is available for the approaching cropping season Rice in middle May and Sugarcane later.


The water crisis has also forced Sindh to reduce the tentative target for rice cultivation area by almost 80 per cent from 630,000 hectares to 500,000 hectares. While Basmati, the aromatic rice known for its flavour the worldover, is grown only in Punjab, Sindh contributes significantly in the production of IRRI, an inexpensive variety which enjoys great demand in many price-driven markets around the world.

Of the total 5.1556 million tonnes rice, another record, produced in the country during 1999-2000, 41 per cent or 2.123 million tonnes was produced in Sindh. This primarily comprised of IRRI 6 variety. The importance of IRRI, despite lack of demand in the domestic market, can be attributed to two factors primarily. Number one, its wide spread use as flour by the people in rural areas and huge surplus available for exports. According to an estimate some 500,000-600,000 tonnes of the total 2 million tonnes of IRRI produced in the country is used as a flour domestically while another 1.2-1.5 million tonnes was available for exports.

With the rice sowing season still a good two months away, and the relevant authorities preoccupied with the cotton season at present, the measures are also taken to enforce the long-placed but hardly implemented ban on rice cultivation on the Left Bank of Indus. This is aimed at ensuring the best possible water availability for the crops under the existing circumstances. However, farmers will be encouraged to sow cotton, jawar, sun flower, onion and other vegetables in the perennial areas to help lessen the resultant shortfall in rice cultivation. The ban will be strictly implemented this time around in the said area which totals some 100,000 acres.


The water crisis is also feared to take a heavy toll on the fruit production particularly mango which enjoys immense demand not only in the domestic market but also fetches top dollars in the international market. Thousands of many orchards across the province are suffering for lack of water at a time with the start of ripening season. The same is true for banana and vegetables like Lady Finger (Okra), chillies, etc.

Tube wells

The Contingency Plan prepared by Sindh Agriculture Department has made a suggestion to install a total of 10,000 tube wells, half of them by the public sector at the head of canals, distributaries and water courses to supplement irrigation water. As 60 per cent of Sindh lies in arid zone this will ensure the availability of sweet water necessary for the irrigation needs.

The proposals calls for installation of another 5,000 tube wells in the private sector by providing a subsidy of Rs 40,000 per tube well to the farmers. The government share for this will be Rs 200 million.

Zero tillage

The acute water shortage has made the relevant authorities to look at other measures including 'zero tillage' sowing seeds without the traditional pre-sowing preparation to take the optimum advantage of the wet soil. 'Zero tillage' technique has been used successfully for the wheat in Rabi. The farmers in limited areas of Sindh was encouraged to drill the wheat seeds directly into the soil without any soil preparation to use the water available in the field after the rice fields. The water-judicious technique not only resulted in the saving of water, time and labour but also resulted in 10-15 per cent increase in per hectare yield. However, 'zero tillage' was done entirely on experimental basis and thus remained a choice of handful of wealthy landlords as it can only be done mechanically by adding the drills on the tractors.

In closing

The current water crisis necessitates the need for better informed choices not only on the part of relevant authorities but also on the part of farmers to make the judicious use of water, the demand for which is bound to triple with the beginning of rice and sugarcane cropping seasons a few months from now. The crisis should be seen as a blessing in disguise to induct technology best suited to meet the challenge.