A potential saviour

Updated April 25, 2019

Email

Illustrations: Sidra Jangda
Illustrations: Sidra Jangda

PAKISTAN is an agricultural country and its salvation lies in moving forward in that direction. This is not to say that the country may ignore its industrial base as it is equally important for countries to be strong both in agricultural and industrial sectors. And at some level, some parts of both the sectors are interdependent anyway. However, there are not many countries that have the advantage of developing both the sectors. Pakistan has somehow, over the years, become oblivious to its strong credentials in the agricultural sector and has made pretensions of developing its industrial base.

The country lost the plot somewhere on the way and has tried to be a country that produces and exports light industrial goods. The result is that today Pakistan is neither a major agricultural country, nor an industrial one. It has become a victim of energy and water shortages due to inept advance planning, and its exports have refused to move beyond a certain level despite concerted efforts.

When the Green Revolution was ushered into Pakistan in the 1960s, it was thought that the country was well on its way to becoming one of the world’s leading agricultural economies. It was in that period that major dams were planned, such as Warsak, Mangla and Tarbela, and barren land was brought under cultivation. Much of this land had been until then outside the richly fertile regions that had the benefit of the elaborate irrigation system built around the River Indus and the other rivers of the Punjab and Sindh in the 1930s and ’40s by the British.

Pakistan was touted as a major emerging agricultural power, and rightly so, because it grew so many major crops. In fact, at one time, Pakistan’s wheat production was more than that of the whole of Africa’s and somewhat equal to that of the entire South American continent.

From food security to employment opportunities, development of Pakistan’s agriculture sector has vast and diverse potential to keep the wheels of national economy moving smoothly.

While Pakistan’s most important crops right from the beginning were wheat, cotton, rice and sugarcane, it also commanded a leading position among the world’s top five or ten counties in the production of chickpea, apricots, date palm, sugarcane, onions, kinnows and mangos. Pakistan is still a major world producer of dairy milk. It is also a notable producer of raw leather as well as finished leather goods because of its vibrant livestock sector. Its textiles and value-added textile goods also have a world market which can be expanded provided the required inputs are provided.

Pakistan’s fisheries are also important. The country has a coastline of about 1,120km and its exclusive economic zone extends up to 200 nautical miles from the coast. This area has a rich potential for the development of the fisheries sector. Since Pakistan has not moved into high-tech deep-sea fishing, its fishing boats only operate in the shallow coastal waters. The potential therefore needs to be developed because it can be an important source of export earnings.

The water crisis is beginning to hit the country due to so many reasons. The major one among them is that no large dam has been built in Pakistan since the 1960s and there is nothing in the pipeline except of course the Dam Fund which has its own contours and connotations.

Efforts were made in the 2000s to revive the Kalabagh Dam project so that it could serve as a water reservoir for the agricultural needs of the country during the arid season, but it became a victim of inter-provincial political disputes and was abandoned midway. At present, there are no chances of the project being revived. With the Dam Fund, the former chief justice did draw the nation’s attention to the looming water crisis. There are practical fears that the country might go completely dry by the middle of the next decade if major dams are not built or other workable solutions not found during this period.

The present government has put in its lot with the Fund, and the thinking now seems to be that, if not Kalabagh, other possibilities of dam building need to be explored and funds collected for this purpose. The only problem is that while fund collection is a judicious route and should have been adopted much earlier, but enough money cannot be collected for building even a single large dam within a short period. What the country needs in this respect is funding from the world’s major financial institutions, as it did when the earlier dams were built, but this seems a far-fetched possibility. At present Pakistan’s economy is grappling with other, more urgent, issues such as the current account deficit, dipping foreign exchange reserves, circular debt and the constant burden of oil imports.

Pakistan is also one of the countries where water is treated as a ‘taken for granted’ commodity. It has been known for a long time that Pakistan’s agricultural sector does not fully understand the value of water. The farmer in Pakistan has always had abundant supplies of water and he is just not open to other means of watering his lands because he is so used to flooding them. He fails to understand that a sprinkler system can water his lands as efficiently as the flooding system. Because his horizons are limited due to lack of education, he is oblivious to the fact that the sprinkler system and other more efficient watering systems are being used around the world with great success.

There are examples when countries with barren tracts of land converted themselves into fertile oasis with sensible water management. Likewise, there are countries that have taken the other route and become water-stressed countries; Pakistan being one of them. Countries in the former category have even become major exporters of fresh produce and world-leaders in agricultural technologies despite the fact that their geographies are not naturally conducive to agriculture. In Pakistan’s case, water experts have often expressed the view that if the sprinkler watering system is prudently used in our agriculture, there may not be a need to build large dams.

Frankly speaking, the subject of water has not been treated with due seriousness by Pakistanis at any level, whether farmers, rural dwellers or urban dwellers. Water usage habits of the people have always been wasteful and it is only in recent times, after all the media hype and awareness campaigns, plus the intervention of the highest judiciary, that some concern is becoming visible.

There is still a need to do a lot more and, along with the agricultural water users, people in general need to be educated to save this finite natural resource. Pakistan is also a country with a large seafront. If seawater is desalinated, it can be used by both urban and rural populations that live near the coast. It can be utilised for agricultural purposes as well. Many desert countries that have no fresh water resources have done the same.

Rains are an abundant occurrence in the upper northern half of the country. Sindh and Balochistan also get rains, especially during the monsoon months. All this water is wasted and flows into streams and rivers and finally finds its way into the sea. If a system is put in place, all this water can be saved and used for agriculture as well as to meet municipal needs of villages, towns and cities. Collection of rain water and its reuse would be of particular value to barren terrain in Balochistan and Sindh. One area that could be transformed into fertile land could be the Thar region; this vast tract could be used very beneficially for agricultural needs as well as for providing water for the ever-thirsty population.

Many crops grown across the country, particularly in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are wasted for want of support agricultural technology. If proper collection and packaging facilities could be provided at the very farm or field sites, much of this produce could be saved from unnecessarily rotting and could be converted into precious earnings for the farmers and growers, and add to national exports.

A Pakistani company picks up the red chili crop in Sindh and transports it to its factory in Karachi, packages it and sells it both within the country and abroad. At a seminar some time back, one heard of the problems of tomato growers in Sindh. They were lamenting that while they managed to transport some of their produce to the towns and cities in fresh condition, much of it was left behind and simply rotted in the fields. If some kind of paste-making and tinning facilities were to be provided at the tomato farms, the crop could be tinned and exported.

Pakistani mangoes and kinnows, some varieties of which are the best in the world, also meet a similar fate. Many countries where there is a demand for Pakistani mangoes and kinnows, are deprived of these delicacies because Pakistani exporters fail to export the fruits free of pests. Many steps have also been taken by the Pakistan government to grow olives in Pakistan and to export olive bye-products, such as olive oil, to many countries of the world but enough does not seem to have been done so far and Pakistan continues to spend precious foreign exchange on the import of olives and olive oil brands.

Development of Pakistan’s agriculture also offers vast potential on the employment front. Growth of agriculture will create many new jobs and it will be possible to gainfully employ the educated and uneducated youth in functions that the corporate and industrial sector may yet not be ready to provide.