Agriculture: Planting cotton under extreme water stress
Pakistan starts yet another tough Kharif season. With water shortages, especially in the early part of the season, shooting beyond 30 per cent, threatening to go higher as river flows are receding with higher temperatures, Sindh and Punjab are disputing their share in this water poverty.
Statistical reality presents a gloomy picture. Pakistan began the season with both of its major reservoirs exhausted: Tarbella dam and Chashma at a dead level and Mangla Lake holding a paltry 354,000 acre-feet. Last year, the country started the season with 1.57 million acre-feet of water — some five times more than what it has to contend with this year. Even if taken against the last ten years’ average of over one million acre-feet, this year began with one-third of it.
The last week only added to the paucity. On Friday (April 8, 2022), when these lines were written, Mangla Lake had dropped to 246,000 acre-feet and Tarbella and Chashma maintained dead levels. It was largely because the daily river flows failed to improve despite the high temperature in the catchment areas of both dams. On April 1, the total national rivers flow was recorded at 82,100 cusecs. On April 8, it stood at 82,700 cusecs: it reads against 104,900 cusecs last year on the same day, and 137,700 cusecs of the last 10-year average. During these eight days, temperatures in Northern Area jumped from 11 degrees Celsius to 22 degrees Celsius. As Mangla Lake level drop below its spillways’ crust level (1,091 feet), its outflow would be reduced further to 32,000 cusecs — putting additional pressure on the irrigation supplies to Punjab.
Last year, the country started the season with 1.57 million acre-feet of water — some five times more than what it has to contend with this year
Though the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) is yet to announce final consensus shortages figures, it was already passing on the 30pc shortages to Sindh and Punjab: on Friday, against a demand of 77,400 cusecs by Punjab, it was getting 50,000 cusecs only. Similarly, Sindh received 31,500 cusecs against its indent of 44,700 cusecs — both absorbing 29pc shortages to be exact.
This is the water context in which Punjab plans to sow its biggest and nationally important cotton crop on 4.5m acres: though the federal committee on cotton has still not formally assigned the target to the province. Encouraged by last year’s better production, high rates and revival of farmers’ interest in the crop, Punjab is aiming for a 45pc jump in acreage from 3.1m acres last year to 4.5m acres this year.
Last year’s performance of the crop encouraged the province to aim much higher. Apart from better germination, the substantial increase in plant population (from 15,500 in 2020 to 17,800 per acre in 2021) boosted the average yield from 15.68 maunds in 2020 to 19.62 maunds per acre in Punjab last year. In Sindh, it was even better; 30 maunds per acre, pushing the national average to 25 maunds per acre. The official handholding only added to the economic sheen of the crop.
These factors helped put the crop back on the revival path and it was expected to retrieve the area it had lost to competing crops like rice and sugarcane in the province. However, water is turning out to be a big hurdle right in the middle of the sowing spree. To make the matter even more complicated, the entire crop is sown in the brackish water zone, completely dependent on canal water.
“Water issues can cost up to one million bales,” warns Dr Saghir Ahmad, chief economist of the Cotton Research Institute (Multan). The water issue was one of the many reasons that pushed acreage down last year and it would do the same this year as well. It not only hits sowing but keeps impacting the crop throughout its lifecycle. At the sowing stage, it can deter sowing. At the fruiting stage, it can cause shedding and hit yield. If pest attacks weaken plants, the damage can be much higher than what would happen otherwise. Punjab may not get to the acreage figure it is aiming for. How much it loses, only time would tell. But, it certainly would, he forecasts.
“Though farmers’ surveys are indicating an increasing trend this year, that increase is over the last year’s acreage of 3.1m acres,” claims one of the employees of the Agriculture Department. “We are trying our best, but 4.5m acres — an increase of 45pc — seems to be too much to attain in any way, given exceptional water stress, along with other reasons like high cost of production. One hopes that increasing temperatures reduce shortages. However, even if the water situation improves in the next week or two, it would take another two weeks for the water to reach the south of Punjab — narrowing down the sowing window.
Abad Khan, a farmer from central Punjab, thinks that the coarse rice variety in central districts (Sahiwal, Arifwala, Pakpattan, or the potato belt), where the nursery is planted in March and goes to the field in April needs a massive quantity of water. Similarly, the maize crop has gained 1.5 to two feet in height and in this hot weather needs twice a week watering. All these crops are bound to suffer and are suffering at present.
The rice crop in the basmati belt may escape the brunt because its transplantation would go to the field in July when the monsoon would start supplementing supplies. But all other crops are under stress and would remain so till late Kharif when shortage, as per current Irsa calculations, drop down to 6pc, he predicts.