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Agriculture sector has remained neglected for the last many years.
This does not mean that no attention was paid to this sector. But a lot more should have been done to address some of the sector’s key problem areas, including adopting less wasteful methods of irrigation and developing crops with higher per-acre yields than the existing varieties

By Kaleem Omar

Agriculture accounted for over 25 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP in 1995. According to the latest estimates, however, the GDP share of agriculture has fallen by more than 5 percentage points since 1995. The annual growth in agriculture has varied between a high of 11.7 per cent in 2001 to a low of negative growth in 2001, when severe drought conditions badly hit the agricultural sector during 2000-02.

Apart from the period of drought, however, the decline in the GDP share of agriculture in recent years suggests that the previous government did not pay sufficient attention to tackling some of the key problems of the agricultural sector, despite the fact that it is the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy.

Even Pakistan’s large-scale manufacturing sector is mainly agriculture based, with the textile industry accounting for more than 60 per cent of the country’s total exports. This makes it all the more important that the new PPP-led coalition government should give the highest priority to addressing the problems of the agricultural sector, including the key issues of water-conservation irrigation methods and developing varieties of crops with a higher yield per acre.

Flood-plain irrigation is one of the most wasteful forms of using water to grow crops. Excessive reliance on this form of irrigation, coupled with a higher demand for water needed by a growing population, has made Pakistan an increasingly water-stressed country. The per capita availability of water today is less than half of what it was fifty years ago, underscoring the need to tackle this problem on a crash programme basis.

Efforts in this regard have to be commensurate with the magnitude of the problem, if they are to have a significant impact. This means that tokenism – the bane of so many development programmes in this country – simply will not do.

According to figures compiled by the government and the World Bank, the average annual growth rate of crop production between 1995 and 2004 lagged behind the population growth rate of 2.4 per cent. Figure 1 presents an interesting comparison of the growth in the yield and output of four major crops (cotton, rice, sugar cane and wheat) in Pakistan during the period ten-year period 1995-2005.

During this period, sugar cane production was stagnant, but the production of the other three major crops grew by about two per cent per annum. However, even this growth was negated by the 2.4 per cent growth in population during the same period.

There are two lessons to be derived from this fact. One, we need to reduce population growth to 1.5 per cent or less in order to make GDP growth more meaningful on a per capita basis, not just in the agricultural sector but in the economy as a whole. Two, we need to develop varieties of major crops that have a higher yield per acre than our present varieties.

An international survey conducted a few years ago found that although Pakistan was ranked sixth in the world in acreage under sugar cane, it was ranked 18th in the world in the total quantity of sugar cane produced per year. Translating the results of the survey into maunds per acre showed that Hawaii had an average yield of 1,800 maunds per acre, the Philippines had an average yield of 1,100 maunds per acre and Cuba had an average yield of 900 maunds per acre. But Pakistan had an average yield of only 300 maunds per acre. Nothing better illustrates the need for Pakistan to urgently develop crop varieties with higher yields per acre.

Despite this low average yield per acre, however, Pakistan produced about 55 million tons of sugar cane in 2007. Farmers converted several million tons of sugar cane into ‘gur’ for their own use and supplied the rest to Pakistan’s 72 sugar mills. The sugar cane processed by these mills gave the country an output of about five million tons of refined sugar in 2007.

But imagine what the results would have been if Pakistan’s average yield per acre under sugar cane cultivation had been at par with, say, Cuba. In that event, our total sugar cane crop would have been around 165 million tons last year, which would have given us a total output of about 15 million tons of refined sugar in 2007.

That would have made us one of the world’s leading exporters of refined sugar, enabling us to earn a large amount of foreign exchange. That, in turn, would have helped us to reduce our burgeoning trade deficit, ease pressure of our balance of payments, and slow down the on-going erosion in our foreign exchange reserves – which have fallen alarmingly by over $ 6.5 billion since September last year.

This example aptly illustrates the fact that Pakistan urgently needs to develop high-yielding varieties of crops and introduce them to its farmers on a wide scale, just as it introduced high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice to its farmers in the 1960s, under a scheme that came to be known as the Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution helped Pakistan to become largely self-sufficient in food, despite a high population growth rate, which saw the population of today’s Pakistan (the former West Pakistan) increase from 37 million at the time of the first post-Independence National Census in 1951 to an estimated 170 million today (the exact figure will not be known until the National Census scheduled for October 2008).

Given Pakistan’s burgeoning population, a shortage of fresh water is likely to be the most serious resource problem the country will face in the years ahead. To compound the problem, global warming is troubling irrigated basins like the Indus, where some 75 per cent of the cropland is irrigated.

New storage reservoirs will also have to be built on the Indus and other rivers to compensate for the reduction in storage capacity of the existing reservoirs – Tarbela and Mangla – due to silting.

There are several reasons to expect water shortages to grow worse. These include further increases in irrigated land for boosting food production to feed a growing population; and growth in the country’s urban population, requiring a large increase in water supplies.

Another serious long-term problem is salination. When irrigation water soaks down into the soil, it absorbs mineral salts from the earth, flushing them to the surface. As the water evaporates, these salts dry out on the fields, gradually destroying their fertility. According to one estimate, some 25 per cent of Pakistan’s cultivated land has been damaged in this way. Recovering poisoned fields is vastly expensive. The environmental damage done by ill-managed irrigation schemes is a time bomb that threatens to reverse the progress in food production made by past schemes.

Pakistan is currently using half its available run-off, that is, the water that falls on the country and is collected in rivers, lakes and streams, and is drawing half as much again from underground springs and acquifiers.

It has been estimated that by 2025 demand will reach 92 per cent of the entire run-off. So Pakistan faces an awkward choice. Either it must reduce the amount of water used by farmers’ or it must make huge investments to develop new supplies and build more storage reservoirs. Feeding Pakistan in the years ahead will require such gigantic schemes to be successful – or it will require farmers to use water more efficiently.

At present only one-third of the water used for irrigation actually goes into making plants grow – the rest is wasted. Using water more efficiently would also bring environmental benefits.

Water supply in the lower Indus basin is falling behind agricultural and urban demand, particularly in Karachi where population growth exceeds the physical and institutional capacity of the public water system. Conflict between the provinces on the sharing of Indus basin water obstructs cooperation on lower basin water issues.

Of the 140 million acre feet (maf) of water annually available in Pakistan in a normal year, some 40 maf reach the Indus delta (though it has been much less in recent years). The delta supports important fish and shellfish industries. The lower reaches of the river have several unique riparian species, but are ecologically stressed by upstream impounding of fresh water and sediment.

Looking ahead in a worldwide context (from which Pakistan is certainly not immune), a shortage of fresh water is probably going to be the most serious resource problem the world will face in 2020. As with food, the problem is not one of global shortages but one of uneven distribution.

Even in countries where water is scarce, enormous amounts are frequently used by farmers to irrigate land. This is what has been happening in Pakistan for the last fifty years. More large-scale reservoirs and more efficient techniques of irrigation (e.g., drip-irrigation) are urgently needed in order to ensure that large chunks of Pakistan do not end up as deserts.

No number of press conferences or seminars can solve the problem. What is needed is action, action and more action – starting not five years from now or ten years from now, but today. In China, they have self-reliance. In Pakistan, we have seminars on self reliance. That’s the difference. We need to learn lessons from China and act upon them urgently.

Source: The News, 1/9/2008

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