ISLAMABAD: Mahboob Ahmad was so sure he would have a bumper crop of cotton last season that he was planning to finally fix the date of his eldest son’s wedding.
Then unusually heavy rains pelted Khanewal district, destroying the cotton plants just as they were fruiting.
“All my dreams and plans were shattered,” said Ahmad. “I am so disappointed with this year’s loss that I may quit cotton cultivation from next year.” Another season of erratic weather has crippled Pakistan’s already ailing cotton sector, resulting in lost revenue and jobs that could cost the economy more than $3 billion by the end of the fiscal year in June 2020, industry experts have warned.
Heavy rains and high temperatures during the whole of the cotton-growing season from April to September severely damaged the crop, said Khalid Abdullah, cotton commissioner and vice president of the Pakistan Central Cotton Committee.
That has put a strain on the entire textile industry, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Most of Pakistan’s cotton is grown in the southern part of Punjab province which experienced unexpectedly high temperatures in August and September, even at night, Abdullah explained.
The rest is mainly cultivated in Sindh.
Together, the heavy rains and dry spells destroyed over a third of the country’s expected cotton harvest, according to the state-run Central Cotton Research Institute (CCRI) in Multan. Yet again, Pakistan’s cotton farmers have seen their cash crop devastated by unpredictable climate extremes, said Abdullah. “The farmers are continuously hit by changing weather conditions,” he said.
Last year, the culprit was unusual heat which parched crops and dried up rivers in the two regions.
Cotton is a major driver of the economy, contributing almost one percent of GDP, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. But this fiscal year, cotton farmers will fall drastically short of the government’s target of 15 million bales.
To meet the demands of its textile industry, Pakistan regularly imports cotton — mainly from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the United States, according to the CCRI.
By June, the country will have to bring in at least six million bales — almost double what it imported last financial year, said Shahid Sattar, executive director of the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA).
Importing cotton is expensive, which pushes up the overall cost of textile production, he explained. Figures from the APTMA show that cotton, the main raw material for the textile industry, accounts for about 70pc of the basic cost of the final garment. “Failure of the cotton crop translates into damage to the country’s economy,” Sattar said.
Jobs at risk
Pakistan’s Economic Survey 2018-2019, published in June this year, said climate change poses “a serious challenge” to agriculture.
For the past decade or so, Pakistan’s cotton industry has been struggling to adapt. Production fell by more than a quarter from 2011 to 2019, according to the CCRI.
This year, Pakistan’s ranking among cotton-producing nations dropped from fourth to fifth behind Brazil, the United States, China, and India showed data from the Washington-based International Cotton Advisory Committee.
Employment will also take a hit, Sattar warned. About 2pc of the estimated 25 million people whose livelihoods are linked with cotton and the textile sector are at risk of losing their jobs this fiscal year, he said.
“This low [cotton] production will definitely… result in a burden on our fragile economy,” said Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Islamabad.
Much of that burden falls on farmers, Suleri noted, as one poor cotton crop after another eats away at their standard of living.
Farmers often rely on the money they make from cotton to procure what they need to cultivate other crops for the rest of the year, he explained. “If one crop is affected, it affects other crops as well because farmers have to buy inputs like seeds, fertilizers, and water,” he said.
To help farmers cope with the increasingly extreme weather, Abdullah said the Pakistan Central Cotton Committee has directed its national seed-breeding program to come up with new climate-resilient varieties to hand out to farmers.
Another major problem is that most rural growers lack access to weather forecasts from the meteorological department, he added. And that information is only delivered in five languages, including English and Urdu, which is a problem for many farmers in a country where more than 70 languages are spoken.
In a bid to tackle the issue, in 2016 the cotton committee launched TeleCotton, a text message service that delivers simple, clear weather information and advice to farmers in their local language, Abdullah said. So far, only about 25,000 farmers have signed up, but the committee is working on registering more users and increasing the frequency of the messages, he added.
Ahmad, the farmer in Khanewal, said the government needed to do more to make it possible for him to keep growing cotton — otherwise, he might have to abandon the crop for rice.
He told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that he would like to see the government set up testing stations in every village.
If farmers can check the quality of their seeds and pesticides before using them, that would go a long way to improving cotton production, he said. “Cotton is not only our lifeline but the lifeline of the country’s economy too,” he said. “It needs policymakers’ attention.”