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Pakistan’s rice-water dilemma

13 May 2024

Pakistan is grappling with a dilemma. While striving to boost its rice exports to alleviate the country’s current account deficit, it faces the challenge of dwindling water resources needed to sustain the continuously increasing area of the highly water-intensive rice crop.

From FY12 to FY24, rice area has expanded from 2.57 million hectares to 3.62m hectares — reflecting a substantial growth of 40 per cent. During the same period, total rice production surged by 46pc, from 6.2m tonnes to 9m tonnes (provisional estimates of the United States Department of Agriculture for 2023-24).

In fact, the actual rice acreage is even greater than what government statistics report for the Kharif crop, as they don’t account for a recent trend in some districts where farmers are planting two rice crops from mid-April to mid-November — within a single Kharif season — under wheat-rice-rice, potato-rice-rice, and other cropping systems. The new short-duration basmati (Kissan basmati) and coarse hybrid rice varieties, which mature in under 90 days, have made this possible.

However, there is another side to this story. The ongoing increase in rice cultivation is outpacing available surface water, which is diminishing due to dam sedimentation. Consequently, indiscriminate groundwater extraction is increasing with each passing day, resulting in a continual drop in the water table. This not only degrades the quality of irrigation water but also necessitates greater energy to pump water from deeper depths.

Govt must look into short to medium term water management as surging rice farming and depleting ground water may lead to serious environment consequences

In the past, the government’s flat-rate tariff (fixed monthly bill) for tube wells encouraged excessive groundwater pumping. Likewise, the recent rapid transition to solar-powered tube wells enables farmers to operate them without restraint, which will eventually intensify the strain on already dwindling groundwater resources.

In Pakistan, groundwater remains unregulated. Last year, the Punjab Irrigation Department tried to discourage rice cultivation by announcing a much higher abiyana (canal water charges) on rice farmers compared to other crops like wheat, gram, oil seeds, and cotton effective in 2024.

The government’s reasoning for this rate increase is that, while all crops receive the same canal water allocation, rice farmers are pumping much more groundwater. In fact, Pakistan’s unsustainable usage of groundwater is causing a lot of concerns within environmentalist groups.

With this context, it’s essential to reflect on how Pakistan can reconcile conflicting priorities of managing dwindling water resources while simultaneously expanding or at least sustaining rice exports, especially in the short to medium-term, until the economy rebounds.

It is worth noting that Pakistan has a very limited exportable surplus in its agriculture and food export group, comprising mainly rice, maize, sesame, mangoes, dates, citrus, ethanol (derived from sugarcane), and potatoes. Among these, rice is currently the largest item. The Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan is optimistic, based on the first six months’ export figures, that rice exports will reach a record 5m tonnes in FY24, amounting to $3 billion.

Restricting the area under rice — the second largest crop after wheat — doesn’t seem feasible at the moment, particularly given that climate change and erratic rains during the Kharif season have reduced cotton cultivation, leading to an increase in rice area, along with maize and sugarcane.

The ongoing increase in rice cultivation is outpacing available surface water, which is diminishing due to dam sedimentation

Moreover, since rice is a major staple food in Pakistan, second only to wheat, a drop in production could increase wheat dependency, potentially triggering a new wave of food inflation.

A potential solution is to enhance the country’s water storage capacity. Undoubtedly, there is currently no substitute for dams. However, in the short to medium term, we need to manage existing water resources effectively by focusing on four key areas: reducing water conveyance losses, improving water-use efficiency, enhancing crop water productivity, and recharging groundwater.

In regards to improving water-use efficiency and water productivity of rice fields, three recent developments involving increased use of laser land levellers, adoption of short-duration rice varieties, and greater usage of high-yielding hybrid varieties have been very positive.

Despite these, our water usage is still in the range of 1,200mm - 2,000mm compared to the rice crop’s actual requirements of about 700 mm of water. Such excessive water wastage and low crop yields result in a water productivity of just 0.23 kilogram rice per cubic meter (kg/m3) in comparison with the world average of 0.79 kg/m3.

These inefficiencies highlight the short­­comings of our continuous-flooding irrigation practices, and flawed rice planting techniques, resulting in unsustainable rice production. There is a great need to promote water-saving and eco-friendly rice production.

Over past years, the government has tried to promote direct seeded rice (DSR) and bed planting techniques to save water, but these resulted in lower crop yields and failed to gain traction among farmers. However, there are several other international best-practices and techniques that have delivered notable results in other countries. By learning from their experiences and success stories, we can improve the knowledge and skills of our own farmers.

Unfortunately, groundwater recharge, especially at the farmer’s level, has always been neglected in Pakistan. Each year, an excessive amount of rainwater flows through fields, into drains, and then into rivers, ultimately reaching the sea. This water could otherwise be used to recharge underground aquifers. Such rainwater harvesting could also help reduce the risk of flooding during the monsoon season.

Rice exports are undoubtedly crucial in reducing Pakistan’s growing trade deficit. Yet, they also have colossal environmental consequences, as each kilogram of rice exported carries around 4,500 litres of embedded (hidden) water.

Our record rice exports in FY24 are largely attributed to India’s July 2023 ban on exporting its non-basmati rice. However, this situation may not persist in the future. Will our exporters be able to export the same quantity in the coming years? If not, a market glut caused by overproduction may ruin rice farmers.

Source : dawn