ISLAMABAD: Imran Mansha is distressed. The wheat sowing season is fast passing by, but his fields are still dominated by the standing rice crop.

“A rain spell in October damaged the crop and delayed its harvest,” Mr Mansha, who owns 50 acres in Phalia tehsil of Mandi Bahauddin district, told Dawn in mid-October. He explained that the harvesting of rice requires dry weather, which is the norm in the plains of Punjab between October 16 and November 15.

Similar changes in rainfall patterns have impacted peanut farmers in northern Pun­jab’s Attock district. “For the past two years, excessive dry spells have diminished our crop yield from 4 maund (160 kilogrammes) per kanal to a mere 20kg per kanal,” Ammad Ali Raza, a local farmer, told Dawn.

He said his area received only one spell of rain between July and August. “Our land is parched and our crop is almost burnt,” he said. Last year, Mr Mansha lost almost 70 per cent of his wheat crop due to erratic rain.

Impact of rising carbon emissions felt across agriculture sector; grain yields expected to post significant decline

A study released by the United Nations Environment Programme in November attributed these changes to climate change. It said climate change has “elevated surface temperatures”, in turn, having strong effects on traditional weather patterns, particularly monsoon rains.

It said that the main drivers of climate change are greenhouse gasses released from the burning of fossil fuels which “act like a blanket wrapped around the Earth, trapping the sun’s heat and raising temperatures”.

Islamabad-based climate change expert Imran Khalid particularly blamed the use of fossil fuels in energy, transport, industries and agriculture for the emission of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide and methane).

Due to these emissions, he said, the average global temperature since the start of the industrial age has already risen by 1.2 degrees Celcius and is likely to rise by 1.5 degrees Celcius in the mid-2030s.

Chaos abounds

Yasir Hussain runs Darya Lab, a Karachi-based advocacy organisation. He pointed out that one of the major impacts of climate change was that weather has become both unpredictable and intense. “Since weather patterns have become harder to predict, ‘chaos’ is the most appropriate term to describe how they come to pass,” he said.

Consider this: in 2023, Pakistan experienced the second driest August in 63 years. In 2022, on the other hand, we witnessed the wettest August in 65 years, which led to ‘super floods’.

According to Mr Hussain, such extreme weather events are being caused by changes brought about by greenhouse gases. “While both methane and carbon dioxide damage the Earth’s ozone layer, the former does this 30 per cent more than the latter,” he said.

Mr Khalid pointed out that the impacts of climate change were not limited to weather alone. “We are also witnessing the melting of glaciers, glacial lake outburst floods, flash floods, smog and wildfires,” he said.

Smog chambers

Unable to do anything to halt or even slow down the global phenomenon of climate change, farmers are resorting to practices that, ironically, are exacerbating it.

As Mr Hussain pointed out, delayed harvest of rice in Pakistan is making farmers burn its stubble to prepare their fields quickly for sowing wheat. This contributes to smog in central parts of Punjab and high air pollution in urban centres across Pakistan during the winter season.

This phenomenon has negative effects on public health. “Poor air quality has a direct impact on life expectancy which has decreased by seven years in Lahore and 4.3 years in Islamabad,” he said, citing a study done by the University of Chicago.

Impact on yield

In addition to smog, climate change is causing a decline in crop yields. Dr Zuhair Hasnain, assistant professor at Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi, cited a study by the International Rice Research Institute, which claimed that 1 degree Celsius rise in night temperature may diminish yields by 10pc.

According to agriculture expert Irfan Razzak, weather impacts on basmati rice show that it will likely suffer a larger reduction in yield than wheat, with an expected yield decrease of around 18pc by the end of the century.

Similarly, the climate will also impact agriculture-based economic activities. Mr Razzak explained that 40 per cent of Pakistan’s entire labour force works in the agriculture sector but this will decrease drastically in the coming decades.

Over the next few years, he added, the climate will “impact agricultural growth and household income which are estimated to decrease on average by 5.1 and 2pc, respectively, on an annual basis.

Climate resilient approaches

Though farmers express scepticism of government policies, officials said research on climate-resilient crop varieties was underway at different agricultural institutes.

Islamabad’s National Agriculture Resea­rch Centre Chairman Ghulam Muhammad Ali shared that a drought-resistant variety of rice has succeeded, with a significant increase reported in its yield.

He said the rice seeds prepared at NARC can give two yields in one season. About wheat, he said the centre would roll out a similar seed variety by next year. He hoped with his ‘breeding by design’ method, the crops would adapt to climate patterns.

The government has also devised a Strategic Agricultural Plan to help farmers.

“…the plan aims at providing heat-resistant seeds as well as agricultural machinery to combat global warming [being caused by climate change],” said Tahir Mehmood, climate change deputy director at the Punjab Agriculture Department. This plan, however, exists only on paper so far.

Average temperature in Pakistan, meanwhile, continues to rise. As the Asian Dev­e­lopment Bank stated in its Pakistan climate profile published in 2017: “By the end of this century, the annual mean temperature in Pakistan is expected to rise by 3°C to 5°C…”

Basit Ghauri, an energy expert at Renewables First, an Islamabad-based research firm, said Pakistan needed to expedite its energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables to cut down emissions.

“The energy sector contributes more than 73pc of emissions globally so a transition towards renewable energy sources that have very little emissions would prove to be a game-changer,” he said.

Imran Khalid, on the other hand, advocates for reforms at the grassroots level to equip local communities, including farmers.

“Though we have made a National Adaptation Plan against climate change, we need to go down to the local communities to devise and implement climate change adaptation measures at the grassroots level,” he said. Knowledge and financial resources to ensure decisions at a local level will effectively mitigate the impacts of climate change, he added.

Published in Dawn, November 22th, 2023

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