By Amir Zia
KARACHI, Feb 20 (Reuters) - The heaviest winter rains in Pakistan for 30 years have killed dozens of people, but should prove a major boost for the drought-hit agriculture sector.
Experts said the downpours should help bring a sharp rise in output of key crops, including wheat and sugarcane.
"Rains have blessed our land...Allah has been very kind to us,'' said Qamaruz Zaman Shah, a leading farmer and president of the Federation of Chambers of Agriculture of Pakistan.
"Farmers see their crop output growing, they area overjoyed,'' Shah told Reuters from Punjab province, Pakistan's agricultural heartland.
The agriculture sector has been badly hit by acute water shortages in the past three years.
The sector contributed around 24 percent of Pakistan's Gross Domestic Product in the financial year to last June 30, a two percent decline on two years earlier.
"On average there has been 125 mm (5 inches) of rain in the country in a short span of four-five days,'' said Mohammed Ashraf, a senior official of the state-run Pakistan Agriculture Research Council.
The highest rainfall -- 356 mm (15 inches) -- was recorded in the mountainous region of Rawalakot in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and the lowest, 13 mm (0.5 inch), in the southern port city of Karachi.
The heavy rains and accompanying violent winds killed dozens of people and destroyed hundreds of houses.
"But on the positive side, we expect a 20 to 25 percent increase in the wheat production,'' Ashraf said.
Pakistan has set a wheat production target of 19.7 million tonnes for the current financial year.
But Ashraf said the timely rains would increase the crop yield and it was likely to shoot up to 24 million tonnes.
Sugarcane, another key winter crop, is likely to see a rise of five to seven percent in production, he said, adding that there would also be more pulses, vegetables and fruits this year.
"It will increase our GDP and boost the rural economy,'' he added. The rains and snowfall have prolonged the winter season, which is good both for the wheat and sugarcane crops, he said.
Mohammed Haneef, a senior official of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, said fruits of the winter rains should stretch well into the summer.
Water levels of major dams, which last week hit dead-level -- meaning they were no longer able to release water for irrigation or power generation -- were now sufficient, Haneef said.
"The dry river beds are roaring with water,'' he said.
Haneef said the heavy snowfalls in the mountains or the north meant river should continue flowing during the summer too.
Ashraf said there ought to be ample water during the summer for rice and cotton, Pakistan's two other major crops.
The underground water table, which fell in the dry spell, should now have risen again, he said.
"These rains are the best thing which has happened to Pakistan this year. We should be thankful to Allah!''
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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