NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 48

The cost of water-intensive agriculture

Pakistan faces a critical challenge: the inefficiency in its use of water resources for agriculture. It may seem astonishing that it takes 1,500 to 3,000 liters of water to produce just one kilogram of sugarcane, but this statistic underscores the pressing need for improved water management. Moreover, the situation extends beyond sugarcane to encompass other water-intensive crops, such as rice. In a country teetering on the edge of water scarcity, addressing this issue is paramount.

Many may find it distressing and almost unbelievable that in Pakistan, it takes a staggering 1,500 to 3,000 liters of water to produce just one kilogram of sugarcane. However, this isn’t due to the sugarcane plants directly consuming all that water. Instead, it highlights a significant inefficiency in our water management practices.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of million acre-feet (MAF) of freshwater are wasted as it flows from the hilly areas, where river sources originate, down to the plains, canals, watercourses, and vast fields where crops are irrigated. Unfortunately, this precious freshwater is squandered along its lengthy journey due to inefficient conservation techniques. To compound the issue, Pakistan predominantly cultivates water-intensive crops.

For instance, research conducted by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) reveals that sugarcane requires 1,500 to 2,500mm of rainfall or water from other sources to complete its growth cycle. Similarly, an enormous amount of freshwater is squandered in growing rice in various regions of the country. Pakistan’s rice water productivity, at 0.45 kg per cubic meter, is 55% lower than the average water productivity of one kilogram per cubic meter for rice in other Asian countries.

Dr. Iqrar Ahmad Khan, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Agriculture Faisalabad (UAF), points out that producing one kilogram of rice requires a staggering 4,000 liters of water. This is far from ideal given the current circumstances. He also highlights that Pakistan exports rice worth Rs. 2 billion but at the cost of water worth Rs. 10 billion annually, a concerning discrepancy.

Environmental journalist Syed Muhammad Abubakar emphasizes that a significant portion of the country’s population depends on rice and sugarcane cultivation for their livelihoods, which makes these crops enduringly popular. However, the lack of education and awareness regarding water conservation and efficient irrigation methods leads to ongoing wastage.

According to the Pakistan Economic Survey, the cultivation of rice has been increasing in recent years. Three years ago, it covered 2,724,000 hectares, which expanded to 2,899,000 hectares the following year. This increase is attributed to higher domestic prices, subsidized inputs, good advisory services, and increased exports. The result was a 6.4% rise in production, reaching a high of 7,442,000 tonnes. Last year, the country produced 6,849,000 tonnes of rice.

The survey also indicates an increase in the area dedicated to cultivating sugarcane during this period. Three years ago, sugarcane covered 1,313,000 hectares. Encouraged by favorable economic returns, growers expanded their cultivation area over the next two years. The 7.8% increase in acreage led to a 7.4% boost in production, from 75.482 million tonnes to 81.102 million tonnes during the same period.

Data from the National Water Policy (NWP) reveals that approximately one million tube-wells in Pakistan extract around 55 million acre-feet (MAF) of underground water for irrigation. This quantity exceeds what canals provide by 20%, underscoring the high water intensity of the agricultural sector.

Economists argue that a country like Pakistan, teetering on the brink of water scarcity, should disincentivize the cultivation of water-intensive crops. In practical terms, this involves convincing farmers that they won’t incur financial losses by transitioning to other crops. Dr. Tariq Banuri, the founding executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), concurs that Pakistan is squandering its water resources due to inefficient consumption patterns and minimal recycling. He laments the inefficiency of our systems and suggests that, in the fight against water scarcity, farmers should opt for less water-intensive crops, especially when Pakistan ranks among countries with the lowest per capita water availability.

Dr. Khalid Mohtadullah, an expert in water resources policy, regrets that 95% of freshwater in Pakistan is allocated for agriculture, yet the country still exhibits low productivity. According to the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), Pakistan has the lowest productivity per unit of water, at 0.13kg/m³, in the region, compared to India at 0.39kg/m³ and China at 0.82kg/m³.

Dr. Iqrar Ahmad Khan, the Vice-Chancellor of UAF and an agricultural scientist, suggests a range of measures to address the situation. These include implementing an efficient irrigation system, increasing water storage capacity, cultivating short-duration crop varieties, and raising awareness among the population about rational water usage. These steps are vital if Pakistan wishes to ensure the sustainability of its agricultural system.

Efforts to curtail water-intensive crop cultivation and promote efficient water usage are imperative for Pakistan’s future. As it grapples with dwindling water resources, adopting measures like efficient irrigation systems, increasing water storage capacity, cultivating shorter-duration crop varieties, and raising awareness about rational water use among the populace are essential. Pakistan’s agricultural system’s survival hinges on a collective commitment to sustainable water practices.