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Pakistan: Unusually dry winter threatens food supply

Little rain has fallen in the past three months across Pakistan, and farmers are worried about their winter crops and missing agricultural production targets.

Fareeda Nasrullah runs a small farm in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province and said the lack of rainfall is threatening her wheat crop this year.

"Our lives revolve around water. Two years ago, flash floods wreaked havoc on our farmland and crops, but now, the water for wheat cultivation is in short supply due to a lack of rainfall," the 49-year-old mother of four told DW.

"It's a worrisome situation as we depend on agriculture to feed ourselves as well as to make a living."

This year, Nasrullah expects only around a quarter of her usual wheat harvest from her 1-acre (4,840 square yards, 4,047 square meters) plot of land.

"We've installed a groundwater pump, but the water table is so depleted that there is too little to irrigate our entire land," she said.

Winter rainfall much lower than normal

Sardar Sarfraz of the Pakistan Meteorological Department told DW that Pakistan only had 90% of its average December rainfall.

"Unusually, the month was warm as well. By and large, January, too, is dry, so the winter is rain-deficient this time around," he said.

He added that weather patterns in Pakistan were no longer acting "normally," with an increased frequency of extremes swinging from excessive precipitation to drought-like conditions.

"We have a high incidence of precipitation uncertainty or unevenness," Sarfraz added.

The mountainous region in northern Pakistan and catchment areas have also reported very low snowfall levels for this time of year.

Agricultural production under threat

The rain shortfall has delayed seed germination, reduced stem elongation and disrupted grain development, threatening food production, farmers said.

Pakistan has two main crop seasons — called "rabi" and "kharif."

Rabi crops include wheat, gram, lentils and barley, which are grown in the winter months and harvested in the spring.

Kharif crops include rice, maize, millet and sugarcane, and are sown in June and July and reaped in September and October.

Now with the serious rainfall shortage, not only will the rabi crops suffer, but reservoirs will not have enough water for the summer growing season. This will put a burden on the arid regions in the summer, according to Omer Bangash, a food security expert at the German food relief nonprofit Welthungerhilfe.

"The October-December period was drier than usual. Precipitation is likely to be scarce between January and March, too, so the situation becomes critical for our arid zones, especially the hyper-arid Balochistan and northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces," Bangash told DW.

"There won't be enough water for kharif crops as well," he added.

Bangash warned that Pakistan's arid and humid agroecological zones were the most vulnerable, with high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition.

Wheat production targets for the year are likely to be missed, which will necessitate the import of the staple grain.

Mujeeb Ur Rehman of Pakistan's national food security ministry said it's premature to forecast the exact impact of deficient rainfall on wheat production, as the harvest is still two months away. He admitted, however, that diminished rainfall would impact crop yields.

Climate change affecting weather patterns

Climate expert Shafqat Munir told DW that the lack of rain and snowfall this winter can be attributed to climate change.

"Pakistan is vulnerable to climatic disasters and hazards, especially flooding and droughts," said Munir, who heads the Sustainability and Resilience program at the Islamabad-based think tank Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

"In 2022, monsoon downpours triggered floods, but the very next year, the El Nino weather system, coupled with other local and regional factors, caused below-average monsoon rainfall, leading to drought conditions in Sindh and Balochistan," Munir added.

"Dry spells are induced by climate change in terms of extreme weather conditions."

He noted that growing dry spells could affect future crops with more severe water shortages and longer heatwaves.

"Both water scarcity and heat are co-occurring environmental stressors for crop production," he said. "So if they exist due to long dry spells, Pakistan may not be in a position to feed our population and cattle in the future."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn