THE major concerns regarding performance of irrigated agriculture are low crop yields, water losses and low water use efficiencies.
The average yields are low for wheat and rice, being 2276 kg/ha and 1756 kg/ha, respectively. In addition to water shortage, lack of inputs, poor irrigation practices and soil salinisation are the major factors for low crop yields. Low water use efficiencies have led to reduction in crop yields (an overall reduction of 25 per cent and a high of 40-60 per cent in Sindh) and lower overall agricultural productivity.
Estimates suggest that to meet the food requirements of the country, cultivated area of wheat has to increase by 46 per cent at present yield levels. Similarly, areas for other crops will need to be increased. However, given the present situation of water availability, this does not seem possible. Therefore the only way to achieve this food target is to increase productivity of water use.
The productivity of water in Pakistan is among the lowest in the world. For wheat, for example, it is 0.5 kg/m3 as compared to 1.0 kg/m3 in India and 1.5 kg/m3 in California. The comparison of yields and water use efficiency between India and Pakistan suggest that we are 12 per cent less efficient in using water for wheat crop; the nitrogen fertiliser use in India for wheat and rice crops is almost double of the use in Pakistan — a major factor towards increased crop yields in India.
Food insecurity in Pakistan is a product of poverty and inadequate food availability. During the past two decades, 1987-2007, about one-third of the households were living below the food poverty line and they were not meeting their nutritional requirements. The incidence of food poverty is higher in rural areas (35 per cent), than in urban areas (26 per cent).
The poor tend to spend a high proportion of their income, perhaps 50-80 per cent, on food consumption and water. Hunger and poverty are, therefore, closely linked. In order to alleviate poverty, poor people need adequate means to obtain food in the quantities and qualities needed for a healthy lifestyle.
However, even today when the world is producing enough food to provide every person with more than 2,700 calories per day, there are still over 800 million people in the developing world who suffer from chronic under nutrition. Severe inequality in land and income distribution prevents the poor from reaping the full benefits of food availability.
About half of the Pakistani population has extremely low access to food despite bumper wheat crops during the last 2-3 years. The worst hit areas are KP and Balochistan. The situation in Punjab is also not very encouraging where more than half of the districts have low access to food.
This clearly demonstrates that abundant food does not automatically mean people have access. Access to adequate food depends upon household income and food prices. For instance, in India and Pakistan, despite an increase in the total food availability from 1980 to 2010, the incidence of poverty has gone up and in recent years it has reached to alarming levels.
At present, about one-third of the households in Pakistan is living below the income poverty line and is thus unable to meet their minimal nutritional requirements.
An efficient distribution of food is as important as its production. Even in the presence of excess supply, inefficient distribution among different segments of the society may lead to inadequate consumption and under-nourishment.
In order to secure adequate food for the low-income groups, the government should encourage food aid, food subsidies and low-cost rationing programmes. These programmes have not been very successful in the past due to their cost and wrong targeting. The price supports and regulations mostly favoured consumers and harmed producers, which depressed the production of domestic food.
The intra-household food security in Pakistan is usually dictated by traditions, with women eating’s last and the least amount of food that is available to a household. The gender disparity in access to good food is evident from the fact that about 550 million women live below the poverty line (60 per cent of the world’s rural population). This represents a 50 per cent increase for women over the past 20 years, compared with a 30 per cent increase for men. The gender bias in access of food is mostly due to perceived differences in social and economic benefits of families’ supposed expectations from boys and girls.
For lasting food security, food production should be increased in a sustainable way. Continued investments and extending participatory approach in irrigation management would be beneficial for poor smallholders to access reliable water supplies. Technologies should be affordable and easy to maintain and operate, through which there is equitable water distribution system especially in difficult and marginal areas, where the poorest live need much more attention in order to alleviate poverty.
The author is a senior environment specialist at the National Development Consultants, Lahore.