Friday, July 13, 2012

Low Indus river flows threaten crops

By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio, Alertnet, July 9, 2012

Ali Jamal is still waiting for irrigation water to soak his parched land in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province – and it is now almost too late for him to get a cotton crop this year.

“I have prepared the land, made furrows and broadcast cotton seed in it but there is no irrigation water flowing in the waterways,” the 35-year-old farmer told AlertNet.

The coastal district, some 209 km southeast of Karachi and on the eastern side of the Indus River, normally sees irrigation water flowing by May 15 for the cultivation of summer season crops including rice, cotton, sugarcane, banana, maize and onion.

But this year, unusually cold temperatures in the mountains mean glacier melt has been slow and there is little water. It’s the kind of problem scientists say will become more frequent as climate change brings more extreme weather and as it alters glacier melt and rainfall patterns, bringing both worsening flooding and droughts.

Melt-water irrigation canals on western side of Indus River in the central part of southern Sindh province irrigate nearly 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of rice fields in Larkana, Shikarpur, Qambar-Shahdadkot and Dadu districts. Water from the Sukkur Barrarge on the Indus River normally is released into canals feeding the rice fields on May 15 and flows until July 15.


But, this year, farmers say only about 20 percent of the normal flow of water has arrived, and what has arrived has come late.

“This year we are almost 50 days late (which) means massive economic losses for us because the output of crops will be down by over 40 percent and will be susceptible to insect and pest attacks,” said Noor Ahmed, a rice farmer in Larkana district, some 319 kms (198 miles) northwest of Karachi.

As a result of the water shortages, less than 60 percent of the normal crop of rice, cotton, sugarcane, maize and chilies is being cultivated this season in Sindh.

Other provinces including Punjag, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa similarly have seen their areas under cultivation fall by at least half.

According to the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord signed among Pakistan’s provinces to govern distribution of water from the Indus River, the country needs 77 million acre feet (MAF) of water from the river for the sowing of summer crops each year on 7 to 8 million hectares.

But the flow of the river has fallen by 60 percent compared to last year, according to Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA).

Attaullah Malokani, general secretary of the non-governmental Sindh Growers Organisation said the water shortage was particularly problematic because the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) had earlier predicted only a 20 percent shortage in water for the season.

But in its recent estimate, IRSA officials said low water levels in the Indus had forced it to reduce its share of water to Punjab and Sindh provinces by 45 percent.

The lower water flow has hit drinking water supplies as well. Indus water normally recharges underground aquifers and meets the water needs of livestock.

Water and weather experts have blamed the low Indus flows on delayed melting of glaciers in northern parts of the country. Glaciers usually begin to melt in March, but an unusual cold wave that continued until the end of April delayed melting, said Ghulam Rasul, chief meteorologist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department in Islamabad.

Rasul said it was the first time he had ever seen the problem.

Pervaiz Amir, an water expert and member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change says crop yields and sowing and harvesting patterns have been undergoing significant changes in Pakistan over the last 20 to 30 years as a result of rising average temperatures and declines in fresh water reserves.

In Punjab and Sindh provinces, droughts are becoming more intense and the yield of summer crops as well as fruits and vegetables is expected to fall as temperatures rise.


On the other hand, in northern areas including Swat, Malakand, Gilgit, Skardu, Hunza and parts of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, wheat, maize and rice production is expected to increase as summer seasons grow longer and hotter, Amir said.

Water-intensive crops like sugarcane and cotton will be the worst affected by climate change, he warned.

Rana Farooz Saeed, Pakistan’s minister of climate change, urged farmers to adopt water-smart farming techniques to adapt to the changing conditions, including turning to drought-resistant crop varieties and irrigation techniques more efficient than simply flooding fields with water.

“Raising awareness among farmers about the smart farming methods is key,” he said.


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