Agriculture has been and will remain the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy. The agriculture sector showed negative growth in fiscal year 2015-16 but fortunately has shown steady growth since then. This year, agriculture posted a growth of 5.8 percent.
However, this vital sector is currently facing serious challenges, and if concerted efforts are not made to address these issues than this negligence can pose a serious danger to the economy of the country.
Agriculture has mainly become a provincial subject after the passage of the 18th constitutional amendment, but it does not mean that the federal government stays aloof. It is the responsibility of the centre to formulate policies in consultation with provinces or put in place necessary guidelines for the provinces to cope with the challenges faced by this sector.
Of numerous challenges, water availability for irrigation and adverse impacts of climate change are the most serious problems faced by the agriculture sector.
These problems have the potential to cause drastic reduction in the production of major crops like wheat, sugarcane, rice and cotton.
In the current year, the wheat growers in Punjab said that early summers affected the quality of the crop, which yielded smaller grains.
According to some estimates, because of changing weather patterns the province is expected to produce 18 million tons of the crops, as against estimated 20 million tons. Similar negative impact is also feared on other crops.
After a slumber spanning over thirteen years, the government last month released the final draft of the water policy to the provinces. After provincial vetting, the Council of Common Interest will give the final approval for the policy.
With attention of all political parties focused on the general elections, the policy is unlikely to be taken up for consideration until the next government is sworn in. However, any further delay will be detrimental for the agriculture sector of the country.
Pakistan has already been declared a water-scarce country and it is feared it will be battered by climate change in the years to come if proper steps are not taken to guard it against negative impact of weather vagaries.
The proposed water policy calls for doubling of the countries water storage capabilities, efficient use of available water by the agriculture sector and prevention of water losses.
The draft policy proposes setting up of a National Water Council to oversee implementation of the policy.
The government also needs to review the water distribution policy, as until now water is being distributed not on the basis of need but on the basis of available land.
Pakistan is not just facing challenges over water availability for agriculture purposes. Access to safe drinking water is also becoming a major issue in the country.
Recent horrifying media reports of deformities in a village near Lahore because of polluted ground water consumed by its inhabitants, underlines the need for formulating an all-encompassing policy covering all aspects related to water.
None of the governments – be the provincial or the central – have invested sufficiently to meet this basic need of the people. Governments have shown more enthusiasm to invest money in big ticket projects for the sake of winning elections.
According to an independent study, though disputed by Pakistani researchers, up to 60 million residents of Pakistan – almost a third of its population – are at risk because of arsenic poisoning in ground water.
Climate change also needs to be addressed in a proper manner by our policy makers. Frequent incidents of floods and droughts in the region show that this issue needs to be addressed on an urgent basis. The government needs to formulate a robust policy to discourage deforestation that will prevent soil erosion.
Building of big water reservoirs has become a highly explosive and politicised issue in Pakistan. Because of the extremely polarised political situation in the country, no government has taken any serious initiatives to evolve a national consensus to get rid of differences on controversial projects. A lot of hullaballoo is created for political point-scoring, but no serious attempt is made to address this issue.
To top it all, we need to keep in mind that we are heavily dependent for water on resources originating from India or from the Indian occupied Kashmir under the Indus Water Treaty. With Narendra Modi’s threatening posture over water flows, it is time for the government to stand up to this belligerence and use all bilateral and multilateral as well as international forums to resolve this issue.
The governments habitually have confined themselves to announcing massive monetary packages to different sectors of the economy in the hope of boosting their performance, and have mostly shied away from addressing the long-running and major causes hampering their progress.
For example, while tackling the energy crisis, the government thought that generating more electricity would help ease the problem, but it did not do much, as the underlying problems like transmission and distribution losses, pilferage and payment of unpaid dues in the form of circular debt are the main problems afflicting this sector.
In a similar manner, successive governments announced lavish tax cuts on fertilisers etc, in the hope that it would boost the sector up, but they gave little attention to addressing serious concerns like paucity of water for irrigation, adverse impact of climate change, etc.
The seriousness of our rulers to tackle such problems can be gauged from the fact that though a separate ministry of climate change has been set up, hardly any effort has been made by successive governments to appoint a person as the head of the ministry. The ministry needs a head that is well versed with the issues related to this much specialised subject.
In his budget speech too, Finance Minister Miftah Ismail doubled the allocation for water division but did not announce any project or scheme aimed at dealing with the growing water scarcity faced by the country. There also have been no announcements about any government plans to tackle climate change-related issues.
With elections coming closer, the civil society groups need to gear up their efforts to create awareness among the general public on these issues. The public needs to be enabled to link commitment to poll their votes to candidates who promise they will make efforts to address these basic problems faced by the country.
They should also make optimum use of mainstream as well as social media to project these issues in order to put pressure on political leaders to genuinely address these matters.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad