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The shortage of water also raises many questions about the prospects of two major cash crops wheat and rice

By Syed M. Aslam
May 13 -19, 2002

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 in the country has affected the arid province of Sindh in a more pronounced way. Not only many localities in the port city Karachi are going dry for days on end but the shortage of water also raises many questions about the prospects of two major cash crops wheat and rice which are cropped in the summer 'Kharif' season started last month.

Cotton is monitored by the government as the representative crop of the Kharif season just as it monitors wheat as the representative crop for the Rabi or summer cropping season. In 1999-2000, cotton, the all important cash crop, was cultivated over 3.002 million hectares in the country. Sindh plays a significant role in cotton production, more in term of production than in term of area as per unit area yield of cotton is more than it is in Punjab, the biggest cotton growing province both in terms of area and production.

Over 78 per cent of cotton produced in the country comes from Punjab while Sindh contributes the second biggest share of 20 per cent or 2.3 million bales was contributed by Sindh. It is also increasing by each passing year during 1998-99, the per hectare cotton yield in Sindh was 570 kilograms as compared to about 510 kilogram nationwide and a much low and 494 kilogram per hectare in Punjab. Despite acute water shortage a year later in 1999-00, the per hectare cotton yield in Sindh increased to 638 kilograms. However, it remained marginally below the average 643 kilogram per hectare yield in Punjab due primarily to better pest management measures while the comparative low increase in Sindh was due primarily to acute water shortage and low inputs.

Informed sources told PAGE that water shortage is affecting all crops, be it major or minor alike, and the problem is much more severe in lower Punjab and Upper Sindh. PAGE was told that though the delayed sowing of cotton does not affect cotton as much as it affects the crop wheat in terms of production and per unit yield but the weather remains the major deciding factor. For instance, PAGE was told that cotton crop could be damaged by untimely rain during two typical periods during the initial months after the sowing and halfway through. During these two periods rains can either totally destroy the cotton crop if they are heavy and partially damages it even if it is moderate. These are the two most important periods of cotton crop during which rain is not welcomed, the sources added.

However, the situation remains alarming as unlike rice whose sowing can be delayed for as long as two months, cotton sowing can not be delayed for months because cotton requires precise timetable. While delayed sowing can be done for rice nevertheless it results in low per hectare yield. However, in case of Sindh the late rice sowing and the resultant comparatively lower yield is somewhat lessened as low water level allows roots of rice plants more oxidation to gain better size and weight.

Usually a water conservancy plan is introduced. For instance, last year the Department of Agriculture Sindh proposed to reduce the supply of water for the cotton crop from 36 acre inch to 24-26 acre inch the level of water standing in the cotton field throughout the season. It also proposed to reduce the availability of water for Rice and Sugarcane crops from the traditional 76 acre inch and 96 acre inch respectively.

Sources told PAGE that while the usage of tube wells can help neutralize the productivity and yield of crops to a certain extent the most detrimental affect is that the same substantially increase the cost of production due to power or petroleum or diesel costs. The agriculture community of Pakistan which comprises a large number of small and medium farmers can hardly afford to absorb this substantial increase in the cost of production.

The acute water shortage necessitates the need for educating the Pakistani farmers about such measures as 'zero tillage' which basically comprises sowing the seeds without the traditional pre-sowing preparation to make the optimum use of the wet soil. The technique has already been successfully used albeit on experimental basis for the wheat crop whereby the farmers in limited areas of Sindh were encouraged to drill the wheat seeds directly into the soil without any soil preparation to use the water available in the field after the harvesting of rice. However, the experimental 'zero tillage' was restricted to a handful of wealthy landlords as it can only be done mechanically by adding the drills on the tractors. In other words, 'zero tillage' can hardly be expected to be used by the biggest group of tillers the small and medium farmers.

The water crisis highlights the need for educating the farmers about informed choices by the relevant policy makers and authorities for the judicious and beneficial use of water. Much still remains on the benevolence of weather to help fill the drying dams, reservoirs, rivers, canals and tributaries with the life-giving water. The persistent water shortage poses another problem, the priority about its use. Be it used for agriculture, drinking or industrial purposes. This poses a dilemma for the relevant authorities about the use of the precious commodity all of whom are extremely important.