Too important to ignore for an agriculture-driven economy, like ours
For the last 4-5 years Pakistan has been seeing significant changes in weather almost every year and in every season. The rains have often been late or early, and sometimes too much or too little. Monsoons have been late and then have come down hard to cause major flooding a number of times in the last few years. In winter too the rains have sometimes been quite late in coming. Winter and summer peaks have moved around a bit too.
The changing weather patterns have already exacted a heavy enough price in Pakistan, and they continue to do so. The most devastating floods in the history of the country happened in 2010. But we have had flooding in 2011 as well and we are currently seeing significant flooding as well. The 2010 floods might have been an extreme event that, maybe, could not have been predicted. But they did make us aware of the fact that many years of low rains is not a reason to be complacent about levies and protective barriers. It also highlighted the need for having disaster mitigation and management plans in place. Though the follow up has been somewhat weak, but at least some work on the issues have started through the national and provincial disaster management agencies.
Are these changing weather patterns a part of the global warming story? Are we going to see extreme events more frequently? Will the ‘extremeness’ of events go up with global warming? We might not have enough of a history of the changing patterns to answer these questions right now. And even if we find that patterns are changing, we might not have specific enough parameters to be able to predict extreme events very well. But, our ignorance in these matters, or our relative ignorance, should be grounds for us to be more cautions and more prepared, rather than less. We live in an area where we have plenty of rivers, where rains do fall seasonally and where most of the populace is poor and cannot afford very sturdy housing structures. Our emergency planning needs to be cognizant of that.
Whether our economy is still ‘agriculture based’ or not, the importance of agriculture to our economy cannot be over-emphasized. Wheat crop helps feed Pakistan, cotton runs our major industry, and rice is a major export item. Sugarcane and fruits add the nutritional supplements that Pakistanis need badly. We also know that crops can be very sensitive to weather. And it is not just the amount of rain or the availability of water we are talking about. If humidity level is a bit high or low, if the temperature is a bit high or low, if rains come at a different time, if sun does not shine in the weeks it is needed, if fog/smog covers the plains too long, the crops will get affected. And we have seen some of these effects over the last few years as well. We need to prepare for these changes too. Or the changing weather patterns will exact an even higher price from us.
A failure of one of the main crops can be extremely costly for us even if it happens for a year. The income that goes to rural areas will be lost and many a farmer will need to take credit, if they can get it, to survive the shock. Given estimates of vulnerability levels are very high in Pakistan, for most areas, the ability to absorb shocks is limited and even a single shock will push a large number of people into poverty. Since our industry, or major parts of it, also depends on agriculture, the shock of a crop failure gets magnified as lower industrial production as well. This is especially true of cotton and textile area. And, it would also show up on the export side if cotton is affected and we either have to import cotton or have reduced textile exports, have lower rice exports or have to import wheat or sugar.
We need to start exploring crop varieties that can withstand changes in weather. Crop varieties that can withstand temperature changes, changes in humidity, changes in amount of water that might be available and changes in times when sowing and reaping can be done. All of this will require a lot of research. I do not know if we have the research ability available with the current agriculture research institutes and universities. But we do not have much of an option. The cost of not doing this research will be too devastating for us. So we should get the ability if we do not have it already.
The existing research institutes, one can be sure, must have started looking at these issues. But research is not an activity that has ever, in any field, been adequately funded in Pakistan. Given the importance of the area the government should give special priority to these issues. It might be worthwhile to set up commissions with the responsibility to look into effects that changing weather patterns will have on the economy of Pakistan, agriculture, living patterns and anything else that is likely to be affected by the weather changes. These commissions should be given area specific tasks, strict time lines and resources to do comprehensive work on recommendations. And then the recommendations should be implemented.
After the 2010 flood the government had to use BISP, in the emergency, to give help to large numbers of people who were in dire need. But BISP was not prepared for doing this sort of relief effort and there were a lot of mistakes made in the process. But if we are going to be facing changing patterns regularly, including extreme events, should we not look into these possibilities and have agencies that are geared for going into action if and when needed.
Global warming or not, weather patterns are definitely changing. Just looking at rain patterns, fog/smog patterns, the winter and summer peaks as well as their spreads is telling us that things are changing. We have to figure out all things that the weather will affect and prepare for how it will change lives. In particular, we have to see how agriculture is going to be affected by changing weather patterns. If we are going to prepare for the future, we need to act now.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]