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Thirsty crops: drinking Pakistan dry

Cotton and sugarcane are 'thirsty' but profitable crops (WWF-Pakistan)
Cotton and sugarcane are 'thirsty' but profitable crops

The 'life line' of the Indus River flows through the length of Pakistan. It sustains more than half of Pakistan's agriculturally dependant population and feeds 'thirsty' but profitable crops, such as cotton and sugarcane. However, producing one kilogramme of cotton, enough for a T-shirt and pair of jeans, requires more than 13,000 litres of water. And while 90 per cent of water taken from the Indus is used in agriculture, a WWF report highlights that only 30 per cent actually reaches the crop.

Cotton and sugarcane account for 1.9 and 0.7 per cent of Pakistan's GDP respectively. But the country is in danger of running out of fresh water. Many rural communities now face water shortages and, though rich in biodiversity, the Indus River is threatened by pollution and intensive water abstraction. Working in collaboration with WWF international, companies are sending a clear message to Pakistan's water-intensive cotton and sugarcane producers: retailers want quality, but they want sustainability, water efficiency and reduced use of chemical inputs.

But, according to WWF-UK's freshwater programme manager Rebecca May, persuading farmers to switch from cotton or sugarcane production is neither economically viable nor realistic. Instead, the introduction of Better Management Practices (BMP) has led to impressive results. Working on the premise that efficient pesticide and water use increases water availability, reduces pollution and saves on cost, WWF-Pakistan's freshwater programme has targeted almost 5,000 cotton and sugarcane Punjabi farmers in Faisalabad and Bahawalpur, with BMP training.

Pouring benefits back

Farmer Field Schools have taught growers to reduce their use of water, fertiliser and pesticides (WWF-Pakistan)
Farmer Field Schools have taught growers to reduce their use of water, fertiliser and pesticides

Under the EC-funded Thirsty Crops project, Farmer Field Schools and workshops held over the last three years have taught growers to minimise pesticide use through improved identification of pests and beneficial insects and their interactions, and to better understand the health and environmental effects of pesticide use. Farmers have also learnt how to reduce water and fertiliser use by using indicators to assess irrigation and fertility needs, and by using organic manure and compost and different fertiliser application techniques. To further reduce water usage, bed and furrow irrigation (furrows are periodically irrigated) and alternate row irrigation (every other row is irrigated) have been promoted.

The benefits are not just environmental - crucially for farmers, they are economic as well. Farmers have been taught how to harvest and transport cotton and sugarcane to retain maximum market value. And a vital component of the project has been the involvement of the private sector through the Better Cotton and Better Sugar Cane Initiatives. Standards have been developed and major buyers are interested: 2008 saw the procurement of BMP cotton by IKEA's buyers in Pakistan.

Big business has been instrumental in getting farmers to comply with improved practices and the figures speak for themselves. In 2008, the Thirsty Crops project demonstrated that by using BMPs, cotton growers have reduced water, fertiliser and pesticide use by 37, 31 and 66 per cent respectively. Research trials also showed that sugarcane growers can achieve similar results, with pesticide application reduced by almost 100 per cent.

It has been a challenge convincing farmers to change their practices, since small scale growers do not want to take risks. But on-farm research, discovery-based learning with farmers, demonstration plots for BMPs, and working with and strengthening local farmer organisations, has convinced farmers that these better management practices make better business and environmental sense.

Thinking big, making a splash

The aim of the Thirsty Crops project is that eighty per cent of participating cotton and sugarcane farmers in Faisalabad and Bahawalpur will take up BMPs by the end of 2009. As a result, Hammad Naqi Khan, Director of WWF-Pakistan's freshwater programme, expects some 30,000 farmers to benefit directly or indirectly from the training. "We have shown farmers that they can increase their profit if they follow these practices. Cotton farmers get the market price for cotton and immediate payment for their product, whereas before payment may have been delayed. And the quality of the cotton is now better."

With training, farmers are improving their on-farm management practices (WWF-Pakistan)
With training, farmers are improving their on-farm management practices

There is, however, more to do in developing policy and encouraging government extension departments to take improved farming practices to farmers, for example. But already better on-farm management practices have been picked up by 90 per cent of trained farmers in Pakistan and India. Where cotton is concerned, textile manufacturers, exporters and international buyers, including IKEA, are committed to buying and there is a system in place enabling them to do this. What is more, better practices have attracted business members of the Better Cotton Initiative and the Better Sugar Cane Initiative demonstrating that success for small farmers can be sustained.

Training efforts will be scaled up in the future and the WWF-Pakistan's freshwater team are optimistic that more big names - Levi, Gap, Coca Cola - will source BMP cotton or sugarcane. Naqi Khan enthuses: "I am pretty confident that this will expand like anything because there is demand from the commercial sectors. I am optimistic about that."

Written by: Georgina Smith

Date published: November 2009


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