A Change in Staple – An Early Drought Warning Helps Farmers Prepare For Dry Season

Surface of Rawal Lake near Islamabad — Reuters

Like his farming neighbours, Bilal Khan plants wheat in late
October or early November each year, and harvests and sells his winter crop a
few months later.
But this year there are no wheat stalks are to be seen on
his three hectares of land in Rawat, a town some 20km from Islamabad,
Pakistan’s capital.
Instead, Khan is growing onions, potatoes, cauliflower,
cabbage and carrots.
In late October, the Pakistan Meteorological Department
informed Khan and other farmers that no rain was forecast for the crucial wheat-growing
months of November and December in parts of northern Pakistan that rely solely
on rain-fed agriculture. The warning was one of the first of its kind from
Pakistan’s weather service, aimed at helping farmers look ahead months, rather
than just days, and plan for crops more likely to survive drought.
“As advised by the weatherman on the radio, I exercised
caution and opted for vegetable cultivation, it being less water-intensive,”
Khan said. He is irrigating his crops with water drawn from a nearby pond.
Winter rains are usually reliable in this region — but
already those who did not heed the weather forecast are regretting their
decision, as they watch the wheat they planted fail.
Mohammad Khan spent $2,000 (Dh7,346) on wheat seed which he
finished sowing on November 7 on his family’s 1.6-hectare farm in Ghool, a
village about 90km southeast of Islamabad.
His nights have been sleepless since he noticed the seeds
growing abnormally slowly.
The wheat plants were only 3 inches tall by November 21,
rather than the 12 inches he would have expected.
“Even if rains come in January and February, the wheat
output would be less than 50 per cent” of normal, because the grain heads will
be underdeveloped, Khan predicted.
Slow growth makes the crop vulnerable in other ways, too.
Weak at the roots
Karaim Nawab, a wheat farmer in Gujar Khan, said if wheat
doesn’t grow strongly enough to properly grip the soil, the plants are at risk
of being flattened if there are heavy winds later in the season.
Wheat is grown on around 9 million hectares of land in
Pakistan, 30 per cent of which is rain-fed.
Around 25 million tonnes of the crop are produced annually
across the country. The Potohar plateau in the northeast, where Islamabad and
its surrounding area are located, produces 3 million tonnes.
Farmers usually finish sowing wheat by mid-November and,
under normal circumstances, two rainy spells in November and December drench
the fields, allowing the seeds to germinate. The harvest begins in April.
This year, things are different. Ghulam Rasul,
director-general of the Meteorological Department, said the winter drought
appears to be the result of an unusual high pressure zone over Central Asia
that has driven rain clouds over northern Pakistan and beyond without letting
Rasul says the drought is a consequence of the El Nino
phenomenon, but that the effects are much harsher now than the last time the
weather phenomenon affected Pakistan, in 2009.
The winter drought comes on the heels of a monsoon that
receded in early September, almost three weeks earlier than expected.
Hot issue
Apart from holding back the onset of winter rains across
Pakistan, El Nino is also causing large fluctuations between day and night-time
temperatures, Rasul added — another headache for farmers.
Mohammad Tariq, director of the state-owned Rain-fed
Agriculture Research Institute in Chakwal, said wheat requires temperatures of
21 to 25 degrees Celsius for effective germination. “This winter, during the
peak wheat-sowing months of October and November, the temperature remained
around 30 degrees,” he said.
The high temperatures have forced farmers to delay wheat
sowing in Islamabad and its suburban areas such as Rawat, Gujar Khan and
In Rawat, Bilal Khan is confident his vegetables will sell
quickly when he takes them to market in February and March. He predicts he will
make as much money as he would have from wheat.
“The forecast has been a big help as it has saved my
investment of almost $3,000 going down the drain had I cultivated wheat this
time,” he said.

Source: Gulf News

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