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Footprints: Shape of the future

Updated April 06, 2018

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AN employee of the farm examines the soil moisture level at the chilli field at a farm in Muridke.—Photo by writer
AN employee of the farm examines the soil moisture level at the chilli field at a farm in Muridke.—Photo by writer

IT was in 2011 when Mustapha Yousaf quit his job at a Dutch bank in the UAE. He had worked in its private wealth management division for seven years but now returned home to farm.

“We have 33 acres of agricultural land. The land was rented out to local farmers every year. I thought we could make decent income if we cultivated it ourselves,” he tells this correspondent as he leads the way around his green chilli fields spread over several acres in Saikhum, a village about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Lahore.

But at the end of the first year, he had spent more money on growing spices and vegetables than he had earned from their sale.

Yet that was the only time he suffered losses. The next year, he stopped using conventional ‘flood’ irrigation and switched to drip or precision irrigation.

“Ever since we shifted to precision irrigation, our input and labour costs have decreased dramatically by almost 50 per cent and yield has increased by up to 40pc,” Yousaf says proudly. “The plants are now healthier, growth is even across the fields, and we are using 60pc less water than before. The quality of crop has also improved significantly.”

Drip irrigation, also known as trickle or micro-irrigation, is one of the most efficient technologies for significantly reducing the use of water, fertilisers, pesticides, and other nutrients. It allows water and fertilisers to drip directly into the roots of plants through a network of pipes.

Yousaf hasn’t limited himself to drip-irrigation technology, though. He has taken a step further by installing solar electricity (subsidised by the government). The government pays an 80pc subsidy to farmers shifting to their own solar power generation. “Solar power allows us to automate the entire drip irrigation system and further cut our labour cost,” Yousaf explains. “Besides, we are no longer dependent on the erratic and insufficient power supply from the grid.”

Its benefits notwithstanding, the popularity of the technology has been extremely slow, despite a Punjab government scheme under which it bears 60pc of the drip irrigation system installation expense on up to 15 acres of land. The remainder 40pc cost has to be borne by the beneficiary farmer. Additionally, the government provides 60pc of the cost for the construction of a water storage pond if so required, according to the provincial agriculture department.

“So far, 37,000 acres of total cultivable land of 17/18 million hectares across the province is being drip irrigated. We expect this to rise to 50,000 acres by the end of this (financial) year (in June),” says Malik Mohammad Akram, the director-general of the water management wing of the provincial agriculture department. The wing is responsible for the project launched in 2012 with the support of the World Bank.

Malik Akram lists several factors for the slow popularity. “Initially, almost the entire drip irrigation system was imported, which slowed down its adoption by growers. Now, our companies have started manufacturing it locally. The ready availability of the technology should push its demand, although we still have to import filters and drip lines. Secondly, the farmer still has to pick up 40pc cost of the installation of the system that, on an average, costs between Rs150,000 and Rs175,000 per acre — despite the heavy subsidy.”

On top of everything else, he underscores, the availability of virtually free canal water for irrigation is a big disincentive. “Who would want to take the trouble of shifting to new technology when they can get water for flood irrigation at an annual price of Rs135 per acre? That is why mostly farmers from the arid region of Potohar are switching over to this technology.”

The recent increase in the use of drip irrigation in canal-irrigated parts of Punjab is owed to the interest taken by several large food companies. Yousaf is one of the beneficiaries of a multinational food firm. “I paid for the system installed on the first six acres of our land. The cost for a second system on 6.5 acres was borne by a major foreign company. Under the agreement, I grow spices for the company. It’s been a win-win situation for both of us. We got our technology cost covered by our customer that gets an assured quantity of quality spices from us. The contract also saves us from the market and price uncertainty.”

Allah Bakhsh, an agronomist who works for a foreign company, says Pakistan has to shift to new technologies not just to save water — the country is forecast to dry up by 2025 — but also to boost farm production to produce enough food for a rapidly growing population.

“Our agriculture is a fifth of our gross domestic product (GDP), employs 46pc of the country’s labour force and constitutes 40pc of our industry. Yet our crop yields are low not only regionally but globally. The old, conventional method of flood irrigation is a major reason for this,” the agronomist says. “We can improve our productivity by improving on-farm water management and reducing its waste as over 90pc fresh water is used in agriculture, almost half of which is wasted. But before we move towards water-saving technologies, we need a national water policy.”

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2018