Published On: Fri, Sep 19th, 2014

Climate change questions Pakistan’s supremacy in global basmati market

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

LAHORE, PUNJAB: The unprecedentedly severe floods in Chenab and the incessant rains at a time when they were least expected have affected hundreds of thousands of people in Punjab, the most populous province of Pakistan. Besides, the unmanageable flow of flow of flood waters have destroyed a large number of structures, inundated vast tracts of land, claimed lives of hundreds of people, destroyed standing crops and given a severe blow to the economy of the country.

While there is no second opinion that no loss is as severe as loss of human lives, one finds that this year’s floods have also devastated standing rice crop in the basmati rice-growing belt. This belt includes towns and cities such as Muridke, Kamoke, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, Narang Mandi, Hafizabad, Sialkot, and Narowal.

The long-grain basmati rice, known for its unmatchable aroma and taste, has been a product with a ready market all over the globe, throughout the year. The product has always attracted a high unit price in the global export market-something which compelled Pakistan and India to enter into a years-long legal battle over basmati patents.

This is the second time in a row that abnormal rain patterns have adversely hit this region and destroyed rice crops, says Sarwat Ali, a progressive farmer in Sheikhupura district. First, he says, there were minimal rains during July and August-the months which have experienced evenly-distributed heavy monsoon rains for ages.

So in the absence of sufficient rain water and 12-hour to 18-hour load-shedding in rural areas, farmers had to depend mainly on diesel-run tube-wells to overcome the shortfall. This, Sarwat says, increased the input cost drastically and made it tough for Pakistani rice growers to compete with farmers from countries which had normal monsoon rains. The cost of climate change had had a heavy toll on their pockets. Pakistani farmer is already at a disadvantage as his competitor in India gets a huge subsidy on agricultural inputs.

Heavy monsoon rains did come but in September-the month in which they otherwise subside gradually. “It was the worst flood in Chenab during the last 52 years and the scale of the disaster was too huge to be handled,” says Najam Abbas, a spokesman for Punjab irrigation department. But the department, he says, was alert and it tried its best to manage flood water in the best possible way.

For example, he says the embankments had been strengthened in advance to ensure that they stand torrents of flood water and do not succumb easily. However, he confirms that their capacity to harness rain and flood water is far less than desired. That’s why in the absence of reservoirs and delay action dams, the torrents of flood water found their way to rice fields.

Here follow the facts that show how severe the floods were. For example, the scale of the flood increased as around 861,000 cusecs entered River Chenab at Marala from Akhnoor in Jammu.on September 7. The city of Lahore received 189 mm rain in just six hours. Gujranwala, Gujrat, Sialkot and Toba Tek Singh had 115 mm, 114 mm, 96 mm and 97 mm rainfall that day respectively. It is estimated that flood waters destroyed rice fields over 50,000 acres in Gujranwala alone. However, more accurate figures will arrive later on, once the official assessment of the losses caused by floods is completed.

The Chenab flood has put rice farmers as well as those involved in allied sectors such as husking, polishing, finishing and export-grade packaging in a helpless situation. The erratic rain pattern has wreaked havoc for the second consecutive year and it is feared that the catchment areas of Chenab may have heavy rains within a short time in future as well. The rice growers are under heavy debt as private financers do not give any relief in such situations. They will seek more informal loans for their very survival, what to talk about making fortunes.

The catch-line, according to renowned meteorologist Qamar uz Zaman Chaudhry, is that people will have to learn to live with the manifestations of climate change. The damage cannot be undone but the impacts of such natural disasters can be minimized by putting disaster mitigation atop national agenda. But unfortunately, he says, situation on ground is that the government has abolished Climate Change ministry. Secondly, he says, the local communities should adapt a lifestyle which can help them tackle floods in batter way. He cites the example of Bangladesh, where people build huts on eight to ten feet tall bamboos so that the flood/ cyclone water can pass without harming the structures.

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