Nature and Biodiversity

How climate shifts threaten Pakistan’s food and water security

Waqar Mustafa
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Food and water security in Pakistan, already fragile in many parts of the South Asian nation, face an additional threat from climate change impacts, an independent human rights watchdog said on Friday.

“(The) pattern of (the) monsoon is shifting. For the third year running, a pre-monsoon spell of heavy rain and hail in March has damaged crops,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan noted in its annual report.

“The farming community is vulnerable to these changes and there are not enough safety nets to bolster them and help them ensure food security,” it added.

Pakistan’s Federal Committee on Agriculture has fixed a wheat production target of 26.3 million tonnes for the October 2014 to March 2015 season, against 25.3 million tonnes harvested in the same period a year ago.

The wheat harvest in southern areas such as Sindh province is about to start. In eastern Punjab, northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and southwestern Balochistan provinces, it is due to begin in May.

Ghulam Rasul, the chief meteorologist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department, has warned that March’s abnormal early rains and predictions of uncertain weather in the wheat harvesting and threshing season may cause losses to farmers.

Strong winds, as experienced in recent weeks, can also knock mangoes off trees and hail storms could affect the quality of the fruit in southern parts of Punjab, Rasul was quoted as saying in the national media.

Other Rabi crops – which are sown in winter and harvested in the summer – such as mustard, gram, lentil, potato and other vegetables are also under threat this year, he added.

Costs to farmers

Researchers warned in a new study this week of the rising costs of climate change to Pakistan’s farming households.

“We could lose as much as 8 to 10 percent of agricultural productivity – corresponding to 30,000 rupees ($295) per acre – if we don’t introduce adaptive farming techniques,” said Ahmad Rafay Alam, an independent climate change expert and environmental lawyer.

Ali Dehlavi, one of the report’s authors and an economist with WWF-Pakistan, said productivity of cotton and wheat crops could be increased by up to around 50 per cent if adaptation measures were put into practice.

The Human Rights Commission report recommended making adaptation plans to grow different crops or introduce varieties that could cope better with changing weather patterns.

The commission’s chairperson, Zohra Yusuf, said the prognosis is grim, due to population pressures, diminishing natural resources and rising poverty.

The report also noted a “gap in governance”, which “belies the impression of government knowledge, or concern about the threats from a degraded environment”.

The federal government has largely devolved issues including the environment, ecology, health, food production and agriculture to the provinces.

Lawyer Alam said provincial authorities, especially in Sindh and Punjab, have made little effort to draw up climate adaptation policies.

“The provinces are just as responsible for ensuring water and food security as the federal government, but there appears no sense of the urgency to respond to the magnitude of the challenge,” he said.

Tensions over water

The report noted that the availability of water for agriculture, industry, urban use and environmental flows “is still contentious”, especially given the prospect of glacial retreat amid rising temperatures.

Disagreements over how to share water resources have created tensions with neighbouring India, as well as among Pakistan’s provinces.

Human Rights Commission head Yusuf said climate extremes and pressure on limited resources like water could also spur internal migration.

“Movement of population from one area to another due to environmental reasons – floods, drought – causes problems both for displaced people and host communities,” she added.

Alam said the Indus Waters Treaty, which regulates the rights of India and Pakistan over the tributary rivers of the Indus except the Kabul River, had been able to resolve disputes so far. But that had not stopped accusations in Pakistan that India is violating the treaty, he added.

“We probably waste and pollute more water than Indian is supposedly ‘stealing’,” he said.

In Pakistan, the Indus River System Authority regulates the flow of water between Punjab and Sindh. But Alam said “shaky official platforms” had not been able to find compromises between provinces on how the waters of the Indus Basin should be allocated and used.

“Depleting water resources are going to severely affect food security, which is already a cause for concern because of the high population growth rate,” the commission’s report noted.

This article is published in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation trust.org. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Waqar Mustafa is a Lahore-based freelance writer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation with an interest in climate change.

Image: Homes perch precariously on the eroding mud flats of Pakistan’s Indus Delta. TRFRina Saeed Khan..jpg

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