Dry winter leaves Pakistan's farmers looking for work in town

by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio | @saleemzeal | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 18 March 2016 11:28 GMT

Wheat farmer-turned-labourer Nasir Tauqeer Khan cuts marble at a construction site in Islamabad, after a winter drought slashed the expected harvest from his fields. TRF/Saleem Shaikh

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"Had I stayed behind in my village, my family would have been starving," says one migrant

By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio

ISLAMABAD, March 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Wheat farmer Nasir Tauqeer Khan would rather be home working in his fields. But since January, with Pakistan's rains failing, he has labored instead at a construction site in Islamabad.

"Had I stayed behind in my village, my family would have been starving," the 45-year-old said. "I thought better to move to the city and try my luck."

An unusually warm and nearly dry Pakistan winter, with rainfall just a third of normal, has ruined crops and made life increasingly hard for the country's small-scale farmers, experts say.

Many farmers say they are struggling to adapt to increasingly unreliable weather, and in many cases have had to migrate to cities and towns to find jobs to help them survive.

"I feel really unable to keep pace with weather patterns that are shifting so rapidly," said Khan, who comes from Gujar Khan, a village about 55 kilometres (35 miles) from the capital.

Late season heavy rain in mid-February and scattered snow in the mountains of northern Pakistan have raised some hopes of recovery, but have also led to new problems, including a late surge of weeds, farmers say.

Now "we have to buy herbicides to fight the weeds," bemoaned Karam Nawaz, a maize farmer in Sialkot district, in the lower northeastern parts of the country.

Rab Nawaz Gujar, who grows mustard, pulses and barley on 78 hectares (192 acres) in the suburbs of Chakwal, in Pakistan's northeast, predicted harvests of winter crops would be down in his area by half.

RAIN A THIRD OF NORMAL

Winter rains this year were two months late and rainfall has been nearly 65 percent below normal since January 1, said Ghulam Rasul, director general at the Pakistan Meteorological Department. He predicted that could cut winter harvests of some crops by at least 30 percent.

About a quarter of Pakistan's farmland is entirely dependent on rainfall to provide enough water, and in those areas farmers growing wheat, maize, mustard, pulses and vegetables may not be able to save much of their crop, said Sirat Asghar, a former Pakistan agriculture secretary.

Pakistan's key wheat crop, sown between October and December and harvested in March and April, is likely to see a decline from an expected 26 million tonnes to 23 million tonnes, agriculture officials said.

"The worst impacts of dry and warm winter have come for wheat farmers," Ibrahim Mughal, chairman of the Pakistan Agri Forum, a farmers' non-governmental organisation, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Lahore.

Khuda Buksh, an agriculture scientist at Faisalabad Agriculture University, in central Pakistan, said the expected decline in harvests could trigger a spike in wheat prices, and some poor rural households would find it difficult to harvest or buy enough to meet their needs.

"Sensing the precarious scenario of household food insecurity, many male family members have already headed towards nearby urban areas in search of jobs to tackle the emerging situation," he said in a telephone interview.

Weather scientists at the Pakistan Meteorological Department blame the extended dry winter conditions on a combination of global warming-induced climate change and a strong El Niño phenomenon.

"The country has suffered so much because of the El Niño," Rasul, of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, said in an interview. He predicted, however, that the phenomenon would largely have passed by April.

(Reporting by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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