Farmers unable to cope with shocks induced by climate change

Updated 29 May 2018


WOMEN sowing rice in a field on the outskirts of Lahore.
—White Star
WOMEN sowing rice in a field on the outskirts of Lahore. —White Star

LAHORE: Ijaz Ahmed Rao has just finished sowing cotton on his 60 acres in Bahawalnagar. He is now worried that an unusual heatwave, which has gripped the country for several days, may have devastating effect on his crop.

“If the present heatwave continues for a longer period, it would stunt or slow down plant growth. That means I’ll have to spend more on fertilisers to mitigate the impact of adverse weather on my crop,” he told Dawn by telephone.

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The ongoing heatwave is not the only worry that keeps Mr Rao occupied these days. He is becoming less and less certain about the timing, intensity and duration of monsoon that has become erratic now. “Torrential rains will increase the risk of disease and pest attack, causing production losses. It is as bad, if not worse, as extreme dry and hot weather,” he argues.

Nevertheless, Mr Rao considers himself lucky because he has access to both canal and ground water to irrigate his land, which allowed him to do his sowing well in time.

A large number of farmers in parts of southern Punjab and Sindh — where cotton sowing is done by the end of April — have yet not sown their cotton owing to canal water shortage that is projected to be around 45pc for the current Kharif season.

This is not the first year that a set of unusual factors has struck Mr Rao and thousands of other growers. There has been a certain consistency about the adverse factors that they have been contending with for the last few years. It is not a surprise then that a large number of farmers across Punjab and Sindh are viewing the extreme spells of nature with a lot of apprehension, fearing that the ongoing cycle would lead to some permanent changes in the pattern of sowing across the country.

Govt is doing little to help farmers adapt to changing weather patterns

The sad part is that there is no credible government agency to warn and prepare farmers against these changes in agriculture believed to have been brought about by climate change. “Climate change is a reality and has drastically affected our agriculture, crop cycle, and production of rice, wheat and cotton,” notes Ghulam Rasul, the director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department.

According to a recent Asian Development Bank report, Pakistan’s annual average temperature has increased by roughly 0.5 degree Celsius in the last 50 years, raising the number of heatwave days per year nearly fivefold during the last three decades. According to the report titled “Climate Profile of Pakistan”, the country is expected to experience increased variability of river flows due to an increased variability of precipitation and the melting of glaciers. It highlights that climatic change might potentially have various negative effects on the country’s farm productivity and water availability, increase coastal erosion and seawater incursion and frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

“Existing evidence points to negative impact of climate change and weather shocks on the country’s agriculture,” says Sajid Amin Javed, a research fellow at the Sustainable Develop­ment Policy Institute in Islamabad, who has done a lot of work on the impact of climate change on agriculture and co-authored a number of reports on the subject.

“Both long-run temperature and precipitation have significant negative impact on agriculture, but the effect of long-run temperature is varying across regions and seasons both in magnitude and direction,” he says.

Farmers say climate change is adding to weather uncertainties. “Weather has become more unpredictable in the recent years because of changing climate. But these changes have not consolidated as yet and become a ‘new normal’. For example, we may have torrential rains this year and face drought next year. The third year may be a normal one. That makes difficult for the farmers to change their sowing time and cropping patterns. They have to follow the usual sowing period, and keep hoping for favourable weather conditions and a good harvest,” says Hamid Malhi, a progressive grower from Sialkot district.

He is critical of the government for not helping the farmers mitigate adverse impact of climate change on their livelihoods. “The government has done nothing to mitigate suffering of the farmers or help them adapt to changing weather patterns. It requires a lot of research and development of new seed varieties that are tolerant to changing weather conditions. But we have not seen any action on the part of the government so far,” Mr Malhi deplores.

Mr Javed argues that smallholders who are most vulnerable to changing climate lack resources for effective adaptation strategies. He thinks that access to credit and government extension services can play a vital role in the choice of farm level adaptation options.

Research on adaptation to climate change also suffers some confirmation biases and adaptations to market risks may be incorrectly attributed to climate change, he warns. “Our quasi-experiment administered on 400 farming households from four districts of Pakistan demonstrates that when farmers are not sensitised about climate change prior to questions on adaptations, they assign market factors such as availability of new opportunities, improved purchasing power and net profitability as major reasons for changes in sowing date, growing new crop variety and use of fertilisers.

“To be exact, less than one per cent to 2.5pc of farmers indicated climate change as the reason behind change in crop variety and use of fertilisers, which otherwise are reported to be the most common adaptation strategies to face changing climate. Similarly, only 10pc farmers associated late sowing with climate change,” Mr Jawed says.

Unless climate change trends are reversed, our agriculture will be the most seriously impacted sector that in turn will affect food security of the country in the years to come.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2018