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ENVIRONMENT: TACKLING CHANGE, ONE FARM AT A TIME

The solar panels on Malik Tariq’s 21-acre farm
The solar panels on Malik Tariq’s 21-acre farm

I often travel to different villages across Pakistan to see if all the chatter and policies about climate change in the development sector translate into something tangible for the local farming communities.

One such trip, to a farm in Thati Gujran village on the outskirts of Islamabad, proved to be particularly enlightening. The farm, a 21-acre piece of land privately-owned by Malik Tariq, is located in a rain-fed zone of the Potohar Plateau which receives approximately 800-1,000mm of rain annually. The farm is irrigated by a seven-acre pond on the premises — one of the many small check dams built by the Punjab government’s Soil and Water Conservation Department across the Potohar region that harvests rainwater for agriculture.

Since the cultivated area of Tariq’s farm is at a higher elevation than the pond, a diesel-fuelled pump was installed to supply water for irrigation. Unfortunately, as Tariq explained, crop productivity remained low because the irrigation system was uneconomical and inefficient.

How technology is being used on farms to mitigate the effects of climate change

However, when Tariq began working with the National Agriculture Research Centre (NARC), which functions under the auspices of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), his situation drastically improved. Under NARC’s guidance, he began using Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) technologies — industry jargon for green farming methods. The diesel pump was replaced with a five-horsepower (hp) submersible DC solar pump in a move towards decreasing dependency on fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions.

Tariq’s farm is not an isolated case. According to Dr Bashir Ahmed, the principal scientific officer at the Climate Change Alternate Energy & Water Resources Institute (CAEWRI), CSA technologies have been successful in improving crop yield and result in a better yield compared to traditional farming.

THE EPICENTRE OF LIFE

Tariq’s farm is a NARC pilot project. Under the organisation’s guidance, it has become more than simply a source for irrigation water. The pond, which has a capacity of 200,000-300,000 gallons, is used to irrigate the entire farm. In addition, it is also used to farm fish — almost 6,000 fish are harvested at one time in the pond. A rain-gun operated with the same DC solar pump aerates the pond ensuring ample supply of oxygen for the fish.

Generally, natural ponds in the area spread disease, increase waterlogging, and ultimately become a burden on the community but this pond has been used to transform the surrounding farmland into a haven for farmers.

Tariq’s farm has also become a model for water efficiency, energy-saving, and climate change mitigation. For example, the farm operates on 24 mono-crystalline solar panels, which produce 4.8 KW of electricity. Even maintenance of the panels is automated: a rotating rain-gun washes the panels at fixed times to prevent build-up of dirt on the panels.

Another intervention is the overhead microsprinkler part of the systems known as High Efficiency Irrigation Systems (HEIS). Other examples of HEIS include drips and bubbler irrigation which ensure efficiency of water usage. With warnings of impending water scarcity within the next decade, the need to test the viability of such technologies is paramount.

Other interventions on the farm include a 5,000-gallon water tank located at a higher elevation than the cultivated parts of the farm. This is filled when the sun is shining and the solar pump is functioning at maximum efficiency and supplies water during cloudy days when the solar pump cannot be used. The elevation makes it possible to feed the HEIS using gravity flow, thus not requiring electrical pumping or flooding.

Finally, this farm has also broken the tradition of mono-cropping. With the introduction of multiple cropping and tunnel farming under the guidance of NARC, this farm has been transformed into a multi-crop agro-economic model farm.

What is perhaps even more important is to ensure that such technology is affordable for all farmers, not just landlords or corporate farms.

AN INFECTIOUS IDEA

Tariq has inspired his fellow neighbours to also adopt the new CSA technologies and methods. Haji Asim — who owns 14 acres of land in Fateh Jang, located close to Tariq’s farm — has replicated many of NARC’s intervention.

For instance, Asim has installed a five-hp DC solar pump linked to solar panels; lined a depression to convert it into a pacca pond; installed tunnels equipped with drip irrigation; and diversified into horticulture (grapes and olives) to increase income and reduce vulnerability to market risk and climate-induced hazards.

Seeing the impact of such technologies first-hand, other farmers are more willing to adopt them; this impact is not lost on NARC officials either. The organisation conducts field days and professional trainings for farmers.

Tunnel farming
Tunnel farming

Another use of these experiments has been to inform policymaking. There is a lot of emphasis on having evidence-based public policies and such pilot farms are critical to generating that evidence.

According to Dr Munir Ahmad, Director CAEWRI, the solar water pumps at Fateh Jang were used to demonstrate the viability of it to policymakers from Punjab. This demonstration along with other collected data was instrumental in convincing the Punjab government to subsidise solar pumps. A total of 30,000 solar pumps will be installed in the Potahar region in the Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Attock and Chakwal districts with individual farmers bearing only 30 percent of the cost.

BACK TO CULTURAL ROOTS

Muhammad Ayub is an energetic 38-year-old farmer in the village of Saroba near the Chakri interchange on the M-2 motorway. A father of two, he served in the Frontier Corps for 18 years. Ayub has now returned to his ancestral home to take up the profession of his forefathers. His family has been practicing wheat and corn cultivation for decades.

Tariq’s farm has also become a model for water efficiency, energy-saving, and climate change mitigation. For example, the farm operates on 24 mono-crystalline solar panels, which produce 4.8 KW of electricity. Even maintenance of the panels is automated: a rotating rain-gun washes the panels at fixed times to prevent build-up of dirt on the panels.

Ayub expresses great affinity and respect for the practices of his forefathers. There is profound environmental and economic wisdom in those practices, as much as there is emotional and cultural significance, he explains. But he is now ready to leave behind those practices in order to keep up with modern developments and their benefits.

He stresses the need to maintain the spirit of sustainability and environmental consciousness — a hallmark of his ancestor’s way of farming — but to accept that changes in climate, markets and demand patterns requires adaptation in agricultural practices.

Ayub’s land in Chakri — slightly less than four acres — has been chosen as a site under the HI-AWARE project’s pilot component being implemented by PARC in collaboration with the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan.

Funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the project is simultaneously being implemented in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal with local partners. Ayub’s farm is both a repository and a source of knowledge for researchers from the five countries.

Pakistan’s team for the IDRC project consists of agronomists, engineers, hydrologists, climatologists, energy-sector specialists, gender specialists, sociologists, anthropologists, public policy experts, and political scientists from both the government and non-government sectors, who work in collaboration with a team of experts from outside Pakistan.

THE BLUEPRINT FOR THE IDEAL FARM

The constant learning involved among this group of researchers through collaboration is combined with lessons from the field to ensure that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model but constantly evolving practices that can be implemented on the ground.

Some of the interventions taking place on Ayub’s farm include the plantation of 80 Mexican Lime plants irrigated through drip irrigation — a plant that is not found in the region despite its suitability — as tested through crop trials conducted by NARC. Other innovations include switching from monocropping to multiple cropping. The farm now also has a kitchen garden, high-value vegetables are grown using tunnel farming (when plants are grown without soil in mineral nutrients in a water solution) and virus-free potato varieties have been planted.

The Persian wheel turns out to have practical ‘green’ benefits in addition to its cultural value
The Persian wheel turns out to have practical ‘green’ benefits in addition to its cultural value

Ayub is kept in the loop by the team about what’s marketable and what technology works. For instance, one micro-plot was used to harvest coriander just before the month of Ramazan, during which the demand for the vegetable results in a price hike in urban markets. The team discovered that the income from this micro-plot was higher than the economic gains from the remaining landholdings put together.

While new innovative technologies have been introduced on Ayub’s farm, the researchers have retained certain traditional farming practices such as the donkey-driven Persian wheel. After feasibility studies, the Persian wheel that lifts water from an open well, is being converted to a solar-powered electrical motor.

The original plan was to replace the entire system with a solar water pump. However, the team realised that the Persian wheel is a cultural artefact, a link to the past to many people in the area and aerates the water (the mechanism is such that a proportion of the water lifted by the wheel falls back in the well).

This discovery makes sense to Ayub. “The water from my well is meetha (potable) and the locals prefer drinking from it, even those with water pumps on their own land,” he says.

That generations-old farming practices and tools could have cultural and a practical value is something that the project team had not considered initially. However, now there is an attempt to combine modern technology with traditional wisdom and cultural practices.

On another site nearby, Amanullah’s 13-acre farm has been chosen as the second site under the HI-AWARE project. On his farm, crop diversification is being promoted, as hybrid pulses and figs are grown side-by-side, with highly successful results so far.

Other initiatives on the farm include portable solar water-pumping to make the water from the nearby river Soan available for irrigation; a weather station; a kitchen garden with high-value herbs such as oregano, thyme, celery, parsley, and coriander; a variety of fruits such as falsa (Grewia asiatica), fig and loquat (Eriobotrya japonica). Peaches planted on undulated slopes and a 1.5-acre orchard of citrus fruits is supported through drip-irrigation. These technologies will be tested by the HI-AWARE team and if they turn out to be feasible, the search for the next Muhammad Ayub and Amanullah will begin.

THE FUTURE OF FARMING

There continues to be a science–policy gap in Pakistan. Accusations of copy-pasting case studies from abroad, only focusing on big farmers, and prioritising donor satisfaction over end-user value (whether it’s beneficial to farmers or not) still echo in conference halls and NGO offices.

However, the NARC projects reveal that there is valuable work being done to bridge the science–policy disconnect. But projects such as HI-AWARE can only be considered a long-term success if farmers like Muhammad Ayub no longer have to wait for foreign and local donors to help them adapt their farming methods to climate change.

While researchers deserve credit for converting theory into practice and for their close collaboration with the farming community, what stands out about these projects is that the farmers are considered the real agents of change. Only time will tell, however, if in the future all farmers will be open to changing agricultural practices like Ayub or Amanullah.

Syed Muhammad Abubakar is a freelance environmental writer. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via s.m.abubakar@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 25th, 2017