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Country profile - Pakistan


In February this year Pakistan experienced the heaviest rains it has recorded in thirty years, causing flooding and loss of life. Yet despite this the rains were more than welcome, coming after six years of drought that spread from the western border with Afghanistan across to the fertile Indus floodplains in the east, devastating rainfed crop yields and livestock herds. The instability of the weather mirrors the broader experience of Pakistan. It is widely regarded as a country struggling in the transition between low and middle income status. In the rural areas feudalistic systems of land ownership, poverty of infrastructure and huge demographic pressures are placing a heavy burden on the lives of the rural people and their natural resources. A highly politicised agricultural sector has contributed to very uneven levels of development and productivity, and while the majority of farmers continue with traditional methods, unable to access machinery or improved technologies, a small number of influential land owners engaged in large-scale production of commercial crops such as sugarcane, enjoy financial support from the state.

The Indus basin - Pakistan's heartland

The Indus river, which flows from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea, is very much the heart of Pakistan. Channelling monsoon rains and summer snow melt, its annual rise and fall has supported a long history of civilisation in a largely arid region. Extended by a third of their original size since independence, the irrigated floodplains of the Indus and its tributaries now yield 90% of all crop production in the country. With over a million miles of channels and ditches, covering 16 million hectares, the Indus basin contains the largest contiguous area of irrigation in the world.

Pakistan's farmers grow a huge range of crops in their richly varied landscape, but there are essentially two main cropping systems. In the far north, the Himalayan foothills are best know for their orchards, but farmers here also grow rainfed wheat, potatoes, legumes and vegetables. At the foot of these hills, the north Indian rice-wheat belt sweeps across the country from west to east, with a southern offshoot following the Indus to a huge delta on the Arabian Sea. Kharif (summer) crops include rice, sugarcane, cotton and maize; typical rabi (winter) crops are wheat, gram (a pulse), oilseed rape, barley and mustard. To the west of the Indus, desert plains and scrubby hills are home to migrant pastoralists herding mixed flocks of sheep and cattle, who supplement their earnings from livestock by cultivating food and fodder crops in isolated pockets of irrigation.

Economic foundation

Agriculture's contribution to the national economy has been falling in recent years, but it still underlies most commercial activity in the country. Pakistan is one of the biggest producers of cotton in the world, and the bulk of the crop feeds the textile factories which constitute the country's largest industry. Cotton lint is an important export. For rural families, dairying is another vital source of income. Most rural families keep a few buffaloes or cattle for milk and manure, and around a third of these regularly market surplus milk. Women generally take responsibility for dairy production in the household, and also earn income from poultry, sheep and goats; typically this may be the only income over which they have complete control. However, in the areas of mixed farming these earnings are threatened by the pressure for grazing land to be ploughed and cultivated, and in the western areas, particularly the province of Baluchistan, successive years of drought have reduced livestock numbers by up to 60%.

Productivity problem

Pakistan has managed to significantly increase its agricultural yield over the last half century but, worryingly, this increase has been achieved almost entirely through extending the irrigated area; little progress has been made in raising productivity. Bread is the staple diet for most, and while wheat crops cover more hectares than any other, on a national level supply still fails to meet demand and the country is a net wheat importer. There are many reasons for the low productivity. The rural population is growing fast, and with land divided among heirs, fragmentation of holdings has reduced both farm size and capital, limiting investment in modern equipment and inputs. Trade and pricing policies have also penalised agriculture, capping wheat prices and thereby discouraging investment. Pests and diseases cause significant losses; many farmers are unable to afford pesticides and those who can are frequently sold adulterated products. They also tend to be ill-informed about how to apply the chemicals, leading to wastage and health problems. Cotton growers and pickers have been particularly vulnerable.

Land exhaustion and water degradation are also reducing crop yields. For the irrigated areas water-logging and salinization are the two biggest problems. An estimated 75% of irrigation water is brackish, caused by over-extraction of fresh groundwater, which leads to contamination from saline aquifers. Severe salinization has taken approximately 10% of cultivable land out of production, with another 15% giving greatly reduced yields; there are also fears that poorly managed fertilizer and pesticide application are adding to the problem of groundwater contamination. In addition to this, over 20% of cropped land is partially or very waterlogged as a result of poor drainage structures, and water distribution systems are in need of reorganisation. Despite two major dam building projects in the 1960s and 1970s, intended to store and regulate water flows throughout the cropping season, 85% of irrigation water is targeted at the summer crops and only 15% is available for the winter season.


Thanks to the spring rains this year's wheat crop harvest is expected to be at least 25% above last year's output. Heavy snowfall in the Himalayas should also ensure that water continues flowing during the summer, giving ample supply for rice and cotton crops. A further source of encouragement for Pakistan's farmers has come from a recent budget, in which the government announced that 36 billion rupees (approx. US$650 million) are to be invested in the agricultural sector over the next ten years. Included in the proposals are a 'Crop Maximisation Project', which is to establish centres of excellence in 109 villages across the country, and there is also support for large scale operations. Import duties on agricultural machinery have been scrapped and further policies implemented to encourage foreign investment in 'corporate farming'. However, reversing the problems of the irrigated fields that are so vital to the country's food security and financial health will require enormous government commitment. In Pakistan's ailing heartland, major surgery, both for the physical and organisational structures, are desperately needed, and without it, Pakistan's history may continue to be one of struggle.

Statistical information
  • Country: Pakistan
  • Capital: Islamabad
  • Land area: 778,720 sq km
  • Population: 147,663,429 (July 2002 est.)
  • Ethnic groups: Punjabi (48%), Sindhi, Pashtun, Baloch, Muhajir
  • Languages: Punjabi, Sindhi, Siraiki, Pashtu, Urdu (official), Balochi, English (official), Burushaski, and others
  • Population growth: 2.06% (2002 est.)
  • Urbanisation: 35% (1996)
  • GDP: $299 billion
  • GDP per capita: $2100 (2001est.)
  • Population below poverty line: 35% (1991 est)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 26%, industry: 24%, services: 50% (2000 est)
  • Labour force by occupation: agriculture 44%, industry 17%, services 39% (1998 est)
  • Land use: arable land 28%, permanent crops: 1%, other 71% , irrigated land 180,000 sq km (1998 est.)
  • Agricultural products: cotton, wheat, rice, sugarcane, fruits, vegetables; milk, beef, mutton, eggs
  • Major industries: textiles, food processing, beverages, construction materials, clothing, paper products, shrimp
  • Natural resources: extensive natural gas reserves, limited petroleum, poor quality coal, iron ore, copper, salt, limestone
  • Export commodities: textiles (garments, cotton cloth, and yarn), rice, other agricultural products
  • Major Export Partners: US 24.8%, UK 6.5%, UAE 6.2%, Hong Kong 5.9%, Germany 5.6%

Date published: July 2003


Have your say

Pakistan's agricultural profile is well articulated; but it ... (posted by: M. E. Tusneem)


The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

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