In Pakistan a sophisticated irrigation system supplies the lush green Indus River plain with water from the Himalayas. Measuring 60,000 kilometers, it’s among the longest of its kind in the world. Agriculture is both a major source of income in the region and an important livelihood. In winter, known as Rabi, cereal and pulses thrive. They are sown in November and harvested from April to May, while cotton and sugarcane grow in summer, or Kharfi, which is characterized by monsoons. However, the difference between seasons is becoming less and less marked, with sowing and harvesting times shifting – but these aren’t the only consequences of climate change.
80 percent of Pakistan’s farmers own less than two hectares of land. They suffer from the effects of drought, floods, storms and extreme temperatures and increasingly have to deal with pests and diseases. Severe flooding in 2010 resulted in many farmers losing their crops and even their land. That’s why at Universität Hamburg’s Cluster of Excellence CliSAP I’m investigating which regions are especially at risk and how farmers can adapt to the changes. To do so, I interviewed 450 farming households in Punjab – a highly populated province also known as the country’s granary because of its fertile conditions.
Firstly I was interested in how the farmers perceive climate changes and the resulting risks. Have they noticed changes in rainfall or growing periods over the past 20 years? What real damage has been done, i.e., were harvests poorer due to soil erosion, pests or plant diseases? How endangered do they consider their existence to be? I also investigated the extent to which farmers themselves have taken measures to mitigate climate risks, which factors limit their ability to adapt, and whether they are supported by the local government.
The initial findings clearly reflect the prevailing environmental conditions, the availability of resources like water and fertile soil, and worsening poverty. As such, in the west of the province, insect plagues, diseases in animals and humans, and soil erosion were most commonly mentioned. This jibes with the climate records for the last 30 years: more rainfall and two major floods that washed fertile soil from the fields and at the same time provided ideal conditions for pathogens. In central and northern Punjab, where records show that temperatures have risen and less rain has fallen, farmers complained about drought and smaller harvests.
About two-thirds of farmers are aware of climate change itself, and roughly half are already attempting to adapt their seeds and their planting and harvesting times. But not all of them are succeeding. Many failed farmers are migrating to the cities to look for work – often in vain. If they were given help adapting, many of them would remain in farming – as my findings clearly show. Above all, there is a lack of tangible services and communication channels, which is something local governments could provide – and stop the rural exodus in the process. Making regional weather forecasts and early warning systems for extreme events available to farmers would be a significant first step.
This content was first published as a guest article in the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt on March 13th 2017.
Dr. Muhammad Abid is an agricultural economist pursuing research at Universität Hamburg’s Cluster of Excellence CliSAP and has recently been made an assistant professor in Islamabad, Pakistan.