Sink or swim: Who will save Pakistan's drowning farmers?

Some nations may experience detrimental effects of climate changes others may possibly benefit from it.
Published June 13, 2015

On November 12, 1970, a single natural hazard was the catalyst that changed Pakistan’s geography.

A terrifying cyclone named ‘Bhola’ — equivalent to a Category 3 Hurricane with speeds of 185 km/h — unleashed itself on East Pakistan and India’s West Bengal, wreaking havoc on the low-lying areas of what is now Bangladesh.

Recorded as one of the deadliest tropical storms in history, the Bhola Cyclone’s 20-ft high wave devastated everything in its way and killed a shocking 300,000 to 500,000 people.

Homes, infrastructure, and livelihoods were completely destroyed. Frustration piled up as survivors’ lashed out at authorities for the sluggish pace of relief and rehabilitation efforts.

The government's failure to comprehend the gravity of the situation fanned animosity among the people, fueling Awami Leaque, the main opposition political party in East Pakistan, to propagate during the 1970 general elections.

The added factor helped Awami League gain victory in the province, which lead to heightened tensions between the central government and Awami League on the transfer of power.

This standoff erupted into a deadly civil war that ended in the creation of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971.

The devastation of Bhola Cyclone, from Dawn archives

The numbers and why we cannot ignore them

Pakistan should know better than to be blind to the catastrophic effects of climate change. But environmental hazards and extreme weather are very low on the list of priorities for our policymakers.

Forty-five years have passed since Bhola, but we have not made any concrete efforts to reduce our vulnerability to environmental hazards.

At a meeting held this week, World Food Programme (WFP) Director Lolo Castro informed Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change that rapidly changing weather patterns pose serious threats to farmers’ ability to grow more crops. Worryingly, it was revealed that a majority of farmers have already abandoned farming and shifted to other sources of livelihoods, particularly cattle and poultry farming.

With a promise to conduct a study that assesses climate risk and food security, the meeting ended with the head of the climate change ministry, Senator Mushahidullah Khan, recognising that the agriculture sector is under threat, particularly at a time when groundwater resources are fast depleting.

With fewer rainy days, erratic rain patterns, intensified floods, heat waves, torrential rains and sea intrusion leading to water salinity, Pakistan is moving towards severely dented agriculture output.

And while we may be oblivious to the looming threat to food security, the numbers do not lie.

Germanwatch, a Bonn-based think tank that works extensively to influence public policy on environment, ranked Pakistan among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change.

In a damning revelation, its report titled 'Climate Risk Index for 2012: The 10 most affected countries' identified Pakistan as the third most affected country by climate change after Haiti and the Philippines.

From 1880 to date, a threefold increase in cyclonic activity in coastal areas has been recorded, exerting enormous pressure on Pakistan’s agricultural sector.

A recent study by WWF-Pakistan also highlights the economic burden, which environmental disasters put on agricultural productivity in the country.

The study addresses the optimal public policy response to the cost of climate change and urges adaptation that can help to improve crop resilience to temperature and rainfall variations.

The study carried out in four of Pakistan’s nine agro-climatic zones, highlights temperature changes (0.5 to 2°C) over a period of 25 to 65 years and relates to the application of data from 1990 to 2014, comprising monthly average rainfall and temperature data provided by the Pakistan Meteorological Department.

Previous studies argue that to bring about a one per cent increase in crop productivity across Pakistan, an additional 0.47 billion cubic metre of water is required.

Keeping in view the current situation, the goal cannot be achieved, as Pakistan is a water-stressed country. This reality makes Sindh most vulnerable to climate change as compared to Punjab.

Sindh is more likely to become affected by floods, droughts, sea level rise and increased cyclonic activity as well as lack of freshwater in the Indus downstream.

Farmers abandon fields, take up fishing

Farmer Ilyas Perozani has given up the sickle for the fishing net. A resident of Sajanwari village some 230 kilometres east of Karachi, Perozani owns 300 acres of land but has been forced to rethink his means of livelihood owing to extreme climatic change.

“We are left with no other option but to switch to fishing, since only five per cent of total land is cultivated so far due to increased salinity,” he says.

Kasur-based agriculturist Major (R) Khudadad Chaudhry’s account paints another grim picture.

“Sudden hailstorms and rainfall have delayed wheat harvest in Punjab and also affected the size of the crop,” he says.

“The government should do something about this or all of us will be directly affected."

WWF project manager Ali Dehlavi says the future looks bleak. “Climatic influence over Pakistan’s food security is likely to remain,” says Dehalvi.

“By 2040, assuming a 0.5 degrees Celsius increase in average nationwide temperatures, an 8 to 10 per cent loss equivalent to Rs. 30, 000 per acre is expected across all crops except rice.”

How will Pakistan’s agro-economy survive?

The results achieved after applying the adaptation measures listed above were successful, as a significant increase of up to 52 per cent for cotton and 49 per cent for wheat in terms of agricultural output was noted.

To increase the output, training sessions coupled with radio messages should be carried out by the Agricultural Extension Department in farmer field schools to educate farmers about changing trends.

Circulating information related to climate change in rural communities and awareness sessions and meetings with community elders will also go a long way in fighting the disastrous effects of environmental changes.

Such gains are achievable for approximately half of all farmers in Sindh and Punjab, who are currently not applying these measures.

The report, ‘Climate Change Adaptation in the Indus Ecoregion: A Micro-Econometric Study of the Determinants, Impact and Cost Effectiveness of Adaptation Strategies’, published by WWF Pakistan, highlights the relatively low cost roll out of state sponsored climate field schools in which on-farm adaptation measures are taught.

Such schools will equip participants with the knowledge of climate resilient methods within tillage, agro-chemical input use, cultivation of crops and irrigation.

Such training requires fewer resources and yields benefits in terms of greater output in agriculture.

Revised cropping systems

Climate change expert Dr Ashfaq Ahmad Chattha, who heads the Climate Change Research Group at the University of Agriculture Faisalabad states that the output of rice and wheat will decrease by 16.2 per cent and 13.1 per cent respectively, as a temperature rise up to 2.2°C to 2.8°C is expected in Punjab by mid-century (2040-2069).

Dr Ashfaq suggests replacing sugarcane and rice with sugar beet, quinoa, soybean, and pulses, and introducing efficient irrigation systems and methods, drought resistant varieties, new field crops and revised cropping systems that can help to achieve maximum productivity.

Practical way forward

Ahmad Rafay Alam, renowned environmental lawyer, declares the urgent need to recognise just how much a threat multiplier climate change is.

“After the 18th Amendment, the Ministry of Climate Change (MOCC) is largely a climate policy-making entity and doesn’t really have a role in adaptation and mitigation operations. The responsibility lies with provincial governments since they need to have provincial climate adaptation policies and strategies.”

He urges that, “Provinces should adopt the Ministry of Climate Change’s Framework for the Implementation of Climate Policy 2014 and increase their capacity for better understanding of climate change and related issues."

Fearful farmers

This year, farmers of Sahiwal, Pakpattan, Arifwala, Vihari, Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar and Chichawatni faced huge losses, as hailstorms severely damaged their crops.

Muhammad Arif, a resident of Sahiwal, is among many perplexed farmers whose wheat crop was devastated in 2015.

Arif cultivated wheat over 5 acres of his land but couldn't harvest as hailstorms ravaged the area.

"No one can even imagine the extent of losses me and other farmers have to bear, as hailstorms took our livelihood from us. With our wheat crop completely destroyed, we are left with no other option but to borrow money in order to plant corn in the area to survive."

Amir Sajjad in Bahawalpur recalls how, 20 years ago, the rains came on time and were advantageous to output. Now, he says they are sudden and mostly accompanied by hailstorms which destroy the entire crop yield before it can be harvested.

This year, he says overall wheat output decreased approximately 30 to 40 per cent in the area.

"This year wheat output is 30 to 35 mounds per acre, which is comparatively lower than 40 to 50 mounds per acre in the previous year," the farmer says,

"The summer season this year started quite early and was accompanied by unpredicted rainfall and hailstorms. The wheat grain which was in its early stages was badly affected."

He said the farmer community experienced losses up to 13,000 to 26,000 mounds per acre.’

"When our sole livelihood is agriculture, such losses mean we’ll hardly be able to make ends meet," Sajjad adds.

Sajjad took a loan for his sister’s marriage, but says he could not repay it due to this loss. He had no choice but to sell his cattle and goats.

The 120 households in his village are completely dependent on agriculture, and the loss left them with little to invest in health and education.

Will policymakers continue to ignore the plight of these farmers?

Can we afford lower agriculture output and a greater volume of imports?

Are we looking at a future of food insecurity and a burdened foreign reserve?

Educating farmers is one way to adapt to shifting weather patterns, but unless the government battles this phenomenon, Pakistan’s prospects look astoundingly bleak.

Syed Muhammad Abubakar is a freelance journalist.

He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via