Till mid-March Faraz Ullah Khan was enthusiastic at the prospects of a bumper wheat crop this year. His hopes were destroyed by untimely long spell of rains and hailstorm which started late in March and prolonged till mid-April.
“The rains accompanied by strong winds at regular intervals during the last two weeks have badly affected the wheat crop in our area. In several villages, rains have flattened the wheat crop, while water has accumulated in the fields in low-lying areas,”the 40-year-old farmer from Channi Waziran village in Hafizabad district of Punjab province tells TNS.
Waziran has cultivated wheat crop on 60 acres and it was ready to harvest a week earlier.
Waziran would not be ready for harvesting the crop in the next week or so, with machines or by hand, as the soil is damp. The grains have already started getting black. It would take at least a week for the soil to dry. The farmers in his area would suffer roughly 25 per cent loss in the yield of crop because of the unusual rains. In several other villages rains have completely ruined the wheat crop. “More rain would be disastrous for wheat crop in his area,” says Fazlullah Khan.
Khan is among the hundreds of farmers from Central Punjab who have suffered loss to their standing wheat crop because of heavy rainfall, gusty winds and hailstorm. Dampness and late harvesting affect the yield and quality of wheat. Parts of districts Hafizabad, Narowal, Gujranwala, Lahore and Sialkot are the worst hit.
“We were expecting a bumper crop this year as wheat got a complete season. We were hoping to surpass the average yield of 36 mounds per acre but after late rains it seems we would not even be able to achieve average yield in our district,” says Dr Javed Akhtar, District Officer Agriculture, district Hafizabad. Wheat is cultivated on 390,000 acres in his district.
As the weather is still in the process of getting clear, its impact on wheat crop would be analysed after the harvest. Punjab, which produces 80 per cent of total wheat in the country, was supposed to achieve a target of 19.1 million tonnes of wheat this year but officials in the provincial agriculture department fear that the target will be missed after untimely rains in the second and third week of April.
“We fear to lose 1-2 per cent of yield of wheat due to late rains which means loss of 0.2 million to 0.4 million tonnes. That would be a huge loss to the rural economy,” says a senior official of Agriculture Department.
According to his estimate, loss of one million tonnes of wheat means a loss of Rs30 billion to the rural economy. So, if we lose 0.4 million tonnes of wheat to bad weather it would mean a loss of around Rs12 billion. His department estimated that the total production of wheat would be around 19.2 million tonnes this year as weather had remained conducive throughout the season.
Late harvest and lodging of wheat crop has been observed in several districts. “Over 70 per cent of wheat crop this year was sown early and has completed its lifecycle. So far, less than 5 million acres out of 16.25 million acres of wheat in the province has been harvested,” says the official.
The Punjab Food department started the campaign to purchase wheat from farmers on April 15. But, the campaign has not been able to catch pace in Central Punjab because of late harvesting. “Till April 22, we had not bought a grain of wheat in Lahore district,” he adds.
The situation is better in South Punjab, says a senior official of Punjab Food department.
Agronomists say that rains at maturity phase hit the wheat crop three-ways. “Moisture in spike of wheat at maturity phase results in germination of seed which means it would not give good result if used to cultivate the next crop; it would cause fungal infection which results in creation of micro-toxins that are harmful for human health; and it shatters the grain,” says Muhammad Farooq, associate professor Agronomy department at the Faisalabad Agriculture University.
Timely sowing and heading are two most critical phases of wheat crop where temperature and moisture play an important role. “Germination of seed depends a lot on weather and moisture. Same is the case with heading. This year, we had great weather during these two stages. We have had adequate rains and temperature remained mild even during November-December. We had mild weather even in March which means we expected bumper crop this year,” says Farooq.
Rains in the final stages would not affect the grain size as it has already developed but lodging and late harvesting would affect the yield next season. Also, this year, people will need to wash wheat before grinding.
Late rains are manifestation of climate change. It was forecast that temperature would start rising in late March 2014, but the weather remained mild till April in several parts of the country.
Climate change experts say the weather would remain erratic, therefore, Pakistan, especially Punjab, needs to remodel its agriculture. “We will have to incorporate climate change as a major factor in our agriculture planning,” says Shakeel Ramay, head of Climate Change Study Centre of Islamabad-based research institute Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI).
“In 2010, there was no rain in March while the last two years have seen rains till late in the month. There has been increase in rainfall intensity and dry periods. Both weather patterns are not wheat crop-friendly. We are in a tough situation,” he says.
It is difficult for experts to decide whether to work on seed which is drought resilient, more rains resilient or extreme weather resilient. “It is a big task but we will have to come up with a solution, we may need a seed that would be resilient in all three weather patterns. Otherwise, our rural economy and food security would be at stake. These untimely rains have affected small farmers the most. It has not only disturbed their food security but also the food security of their animals as wheat crop is an important fodder for cattle,” he says.