Untimely rains

April 23, 2019

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THE worthy climate change minister must be eating her words right now. Quick to claim credit for untimely rainfall, she has since disappeared after the same rainfall became tragic. The statement did not suit a public office holder, much less of the climate change portfolio, and her absence after devastating floods only makes it worse.

Recent thunder and hail storms have claimed dozens of lives and left many more injured. The agricultural impact is huge: some estimates are that at least 150,000 tonnes of wheat crop have been destroyed. Other crops affected include mustard, cotton, tomatoes, mango and citrus. Will the minister now come forward and claim ‘credit’ for what now looks like God’s wrath?

What we witnessed recently is not new, and will happen again. We have had early rains, often called ‘pre-monsoon’ rains, for at least four consecutive years now. Floods have been a regular occurrence, close to or during monsoon, for over a decade now. On average, our summers are now warmer, and droughts more frequent. These changing weather patterns are local manifestations of a warming planet that is causing a global change of climate.

Our urban citizens remain largely immune to any observable changes in climate, barring the occasional outcry about increasingly hot summers. Talk to farmers instead, and they will describe in lucid detail how shifting weather patterns have brought on new challenges including diseases, untimely and erratic rains, lower yields, change of cropping cycles, and droughts.

Can our farming practices survive changing weather systems?

In the face of recent crop losses, the economy must now prepare for shortages and the associated rise in prices. An impending shortage of our staple, wheat, means food security for the poorest will be negatively impacted, further adding to the burdens inflicted by an already ailing economy. Farmers are demanding compensation for their losses, which the government should reasonably provide.

What next though? Must we wait for another year, only to repeat the cycle of weathering crises without preparation, followed only by cash-based remedies?

Our weather systems are already changing and will continue to do so, arguably with greater severity, affecting agriculture in the country (among many other sectors) and bringing forth new challenges for food security. To address these challenges, we need to shift from ‘reactive’ to ‘proactive’ approaches that try to predict and prepare for impacts, reduce risks, and allocate required resources to respond when crises strike.

To begin with, it is important to understand the full breadth and scope of climatic change impacts to agriculture. We know that rain patterns have shifted, as have seasonal temperatures. Is the conventional rice-cotton-sugarcane-wheat mix still viable? Can our agricultural practices survive changes to type and availability of inputs such as water?

While farmers across the country have already started adapting their agricultural practices to changing weather patterns, decisions about what crops to grow and how to grow them are still driven by government policies that incentivise (or disincentivise) certain crops and technologies. We need to conduct research on climate-resilient crop varieties, and subsequently encourage their uptake among farmers. For small farmers, such adoption requires a push that only the government can provide.

While natural phenomena like storms cannot be averted, preparing for them in advance can help reduce losses to the farmer, as well as the government. Innovations like parametric insurance, that indemnifies farmers against certain events, are being tested around the world (with mixed success). This is not to say a solution that has worked for farmers in India or Mexico will work for farmers in Pakistan. But we need to start thinking of innovative solutions, contextualised to Pakis­tan, which can help us prepare better for ­climatic impacts.

Knowing better (predicting) helps to prepare better, which eventually helps deliver effective responses. Warnings issued before disasters must be accurate and effective in what they communicate, and also able to reach the people they are meant for. It is also not enough to warn people and prescribe actions without having adequate facilities for those preventive actions to take place — eg advising farmers to shift crops to safe storage when such storage spaces have not been created or facilitated for small farmers beforehand.

Ultimately, we should realise that untimely rains and storms are not ‘divine blessings’ for unprepared politicians to claim. Responding to one of the biggest challenges of our time requires recognition of what we haven’t been doing and preparations for what, going ahead, we can and absolutely must do. Most importantly, it requires that our leaders, especially those tasked with handling climate change affairs, are educated on what climate change actually is.

The author is a climate change consultant.

marwah.m.malik@gmail.com

Twitter: @MarwahMaq

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2019