BY: Ahsan Jamil
Over last several years, steadily surging temperatures in different mountain valleys of Gilgit-Batistan (GB) region in Pakistan’s north have increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters, particularly reduction of agricultural land due to rivers expansion, and flash floods due to rising number of glacial lakes that have touched more than 3000 as of now. This has put sustainability of agriculture sector, a major source of livelihood for thousands of mountain people, at stake.
With precipitation patterns now becoming more erratic and unreliable and floods more common, the farming communities are finding it difficult to continue with growing crops. Sudden cloudbursts, flash floods and weird upheaval in temperatures in mountain valleys, have long proved bane for the hapless farmers, who are finding it hard to cope up with the vagaries these weather events.
Sharafat Hussain, a wheat grower in Shigar Valley is one such farmer bearing the burunts of climate change in the country’s north.
Sharafat is so aggrieved over losing a portion of his field to river channel expansion caused by additional influx of water as a consequence of increased melting of glaciers.
“The farm productivity of my wheat crop has decreased more than 50 percent in past five years with no sign of retreat of the river size. A permanent nightmare haunts me,” Sharafat grunts while tending his woes.
But Sharafat recounts other factors hampering his agricultural productivity.
He says, “Erratic rainfall pattern and uncertain weather conditions are also one of the major ‘push-back’ factor for me and I still remember a seven minute intense rainfall back in year 2010 that had ruined my near-harvest wheat crop, causing irrecoverable financial loss and hardwork of a year in a matter of few minutes.”
The scenic Shigar valley was once a hub for wheat export to entire Baltistan. But now it experiences wheat shortage and productivity of farms has been stricken by extreme weather conditions, land reduction, rising number of glacial lakes and heavy rainfall-induced calamities.
The food insecurity in GB is continuously growing as more and more people are abandoning farming and shifting to other sources of livelihoods such as mining, gemstones etc in distant urban areas.
However, food-secure mountain communities are fast becoming food-insecure, making the food security of northern parts a matter the past.
According to a working paper of International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) “Towards a Framework for Achieving Food Security in the Mountains of Pakistan”, 52.4% of the GB population is food insecure and lack adequate access to food due to numerous challenges that are aggravating at express pace.
A large chunk of GB population is engaged in agriculture, horticulture, and livestock rearing for household food needs and livelihood. The fickle weather patterns have disturbed natural ecosystem balance and affected the overall traditional food productivity patterns.
Challenges to food security in GB:
The multifaceted environmental, biophysical and socio-economic challenges have flared up the ongoing decline of food security in the GB region and the rest of mountain communities by affecting agricultural yield.
Being unable to deal with erratic weather patterns, vulnerable farming communities remain at the mercy of divine rescue. Because, they lack institutional and technical support required to adjust with impacts of shifting weather patterns.
Climate Change has lumbered various socio-economic sectors of the country, and agriculture tops the list of sectors highly vulnerable to it.
Director National Weather Forecasting Centre, Pakistan Meteorological Department, Dr Muhammad Haneef said, “The frequent fluctuations in the intensity of precipitation in the region have geared up the flash flooding scenario, which has led to challenges for sustainability of agriculture and public infrastructure.”
The socio-economic challenges that suck the blood of food security in GB include the transportation infrastructure hoax, lack of storage and marketing facilities, and mammoth post-harvest losses due to improper handling of agricultural commodities. According to the ICIMOD working paper, all these cited factors inflict a heavy dent of avoidable 30-40 percent losses of food products in GB.
Another jumble that is the most pronounced hurdle in the path of slipshod policies of food security is noted over the years, is the non-availability of updated micro level data in connection to food security in the region. The previous reports are relied upon to augment policies that obviously could not control the threshold of existing misfortune of food security and farming communities find themselves helpless to create fissure and escape from this situation. Although Minister National Food Security and Research (MNFS&R), Sikandar Hayat Khan Bosan has promulgated to acquire substantial data throughout the country but methodology adapted to acquire the data still needs to be demystified.
Sprinting ahead of the Pakistan government, the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) announced in November this year to invest Rs 437 million to reduce post-harvest losses and for value addition of GB fruits including apples and apricots.
The inadequate and inefficient land use makes the GB region an under-exploited area in terms of food and agriculture. According to a Government of Pakistan and IUCN report, in Gilgit-Baltistan less than 10% of total cultivable land was used for fruit production and 9% for vegetable cultivation in year 2011/12 and since then, no sizeable hike is registered.
Chairman, Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, Dr Iftikhar Ahmed sounds a bit more concerned about worsening state of food insecurity in GB region.
“The increasing population pressure, soil degradation, quelling landholdings, and now ‘climate change’ are looming threats to food security in the region,” he warns. “The GB region remains a net food deficit area with net food availability of paltry 1280 kcal/day/capita.”
Options for Policy Considerations:
The summary of Annual Development Programme 2015 issued by GB government unearths a more gory image. According to it, a paltry share of 4.9% of the annual budget has been allocated for agriculture, animal husbandry and fisheries department.
The share needs to be significantly improved to achieve food security goals of the provinces and mitigate climate change impacts on the sector, experts emphasis.
Besides, the institutional capacity and support needs to be widespread in order to develop the local food systems for the GB as a breather, they say.
The food security experts at NARC from National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC) say that it may not be possible to make GB a self-sufficient territory in terms of food because of several inbound and outbound constraints but development of local food systems could be an energizer to the sector and give it a lifeline.
They suggest that the strengthening livestock productivity, another major income source for mountain communities can certainly boost efforts meant for achieving food security in the region.
A much-needed robust marketing mechanism can prove value-addition for GB’s horticulture sector and can lead great deal of economic return for communities.
In Gilgit-Baltistan, the post-harvest losses account for mammoth economic losses to farmers and vendors. Given the reason, the region requires proper storage and handling facilities in order to ensure the standardization of food products and increasing the shelf life.
Role of the private sector companies working in the domain of the food storage and packaging could be tapped by providing enabling environment and economic incentives for investment for them to address post-harvest losses as a part of efforts aimed at achieving food security in the GB region.
Adequate budgetary allocations for boosting adaptation in climate-vulnerable agriculture sector of the GB region would, for sure, will bring down the food insecurity levels in GB and can have feel-good ripple impact on overall development indicators of the region and people’s economic conditions.
The author is ICIMOD Fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]