Pakistan: Living with droughts

Originally published
By Dr Aslam Pervez Umrani

Pakistan is predominantly arid with low rainfall and higher solar radiation over most parts of the country. The land area of Pakistan is 87.98 million hectares.

About 59.3 per cent of the total area is classified as rangelands. Most of this area receives less than 200mm rainfall annually and is, therefore, considered as arid. The climatic classification of land areas receiving different amounts of rainfall is shown in the table. In addition to the climatic factors limitation are also imposed by poor and rocky soils, deserts and rough topography.

These arid rangelands support 93.5 million heads of livestock and a very large number of pastoral people. However, continuous shortage of fodder and water due to the current drought has caused heavy losses of livestock and very adversely affected the life of the pastoral communities. Besides the drought conditions in the arid rangelands, non-availability of water in the Indus river system has made the situation even worse. The pastoral people have particularly been hit harder due to unfavourable changes in prices of grains and livestock during the drought period.

The main arid rangelands are Thar, Cholistan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Tharparkar, Kohistan, and western Balochistan. Except Balochistan all of these areas are within the range of monsoon rainfall, which, however, is erratic and scattered. Hence, 2 to 3 years in every 10 years in these areas are drought years. Unfortunately, so far little attempts have been made to face these frequently occurring droughts.

Droughts are not a new thing for the pastoral people of the arid lands. In the past, they maintained their livestock during drought periods by migrating from one area to another without much restrictions. They had historical links with the farmers of the irrigated lands. The cultivated areas along the herders' migratory routes provided crop residues to the livestock of the migrating pastoral people and in the process the agricultural lands too benefited from the manure. During the drought periods the pastoral communities got some relief also by engaging themselves in harvesting and thrashing of wheat crop, because these operations were manual and required extra manpower.

However, the situation has by now changed. The introduction of subsidised inorganic fertiliser, increase in horticulture, greater use of tractors and increase in commercial livestock farming by agricultural farmers have made all the difference. Now the historical cooperative relationships between the pastoral communities of the rangelands and the farmers of the irrigated agricultural lands exist no more.

Agricultural policies of the government have also adversely affected the traditional pastoral livestock farming system. It has been giving priority to irrigation projects for the agricultural sector. The new water reservoirs and irrigation schemes have reduced the size of the traditional rangelands. Particularly, in the Sindh province, the establishment of the Ghulam Mohammad barrage, the Kotri barrage and the Chotiari water reservoir have decreased the size of the Thar and Kohistan rangelands.

Due to the foregoing reasons, pastoral communities have been marginalised, which has not only affected their life style but has also triggered the process of range degradation and desertification. Indeed, the social and environmental conditions, which had made the livestock production and herbage utilisation system sustainable in the past, no longer exist to support the traditional livestock grazing system. Hence, the impact of the present drought is much harder than the past, and only new strategies can help the pastoral communities in combating droughts.

Process of drought: The option for moderating the impact of drought on the pastoral sector can be discussed by dividing the drought period into three phases. In phase one, drought brings about a fall in available forage throughout the area. Drought conditions in this phase are sufficiently harsh and widespread and livestock cannot move beyond the drought-affected area. During this stage, livestock number starts falling mainly through sale. As drought hits harder, bringing about failure of grain crop (mainly wheat) and deterioration of animal condition, grain prices rise while livestock prices fall. These relative price movements impose strong economical pressure on pastoral communities to sell more animals to raise cash for food and fodder.

In phase two, livestock number falls mainly due to mortality while shortage of grain continues to keep food prices high. However, food price may come down if the government intervenes and delivers food aid in substantial quantities. For example, last year in the Tharparkar rangelands animal mortality increased in the second stage but food prices were under control due to the distribution of wheat grain there.

In phase three, after a significant amount of rainfall, weak animals die due to hypothermia and outbreak of diseases whereas fodder production starts to recover. While prices of animals during this phase shoot up poor pastoral people find it difficult to rebuild their herds. At this stage most NGOs and government agencies stop their drought-related relief activities. For all these three phases of drought interventions can be designed to moderate the effects of the drought.

Combating with drought: In the first phase of the drought, there are two options available for the pastoralists. The traditional option is to move animals to places where fodder is available, for example, irrigated areas. This crucially important option of transferring grazing pressure from areas of deficit to those of surplus, unfortunately does not exist this year due to shortage of water in the irrigated areas.

Destocking is the second option, and it is more appropriate in the present conditions. For destocking animals can be sold while still in good shape, either for meat or to those who have better access to fodder. Where animals are already in poor conditions some value can be obtained by selling them at the price of hide. If the government develops large mechanical slaughter houses and cold storage facilities then a large number of animals can be taken off from the rangelands relatively quickly thus minimising losses occurring due to the death and/or declining weight of animals. Receipts from such commercial sales can be banked for subsequent reinvestment when drought conditions ease. Such practices have been quite successful in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Kenya.

In the second stage of the drought, transportation of feed and availability of water for livestock is the only option for reducing mortality. We are almost at the end of the first phase of the current drought. Hence, necessary measures are required for feeding livestock in the drought-hit areas. There are various options for providing feed to animals. For example, provision of credit according to herd size so that farmer can buy feed himself; subsidised transportation and distribution of livestock feed; and establishment of animal feeding centres to which fodder can be brought in.

Options for intervention in the third phase of drought cycle include those aimed at rehabilitating the livestock sector, by enabling the destitute to restart pastoral production and by reducing pressure on herder's income. Measures to be undertaken under these options include restocking, food aid, vaccination and drenching campaign for livestock, water harvesting schemes, support for diversification of income sources, fodder development and tree plantation schemes, etc. In most cases, drenching and vaccination campaign for livestock starts in the second stage of drought and stops at the third stage. This is a wrong practice because immunity of an animal cannot be boosted when it is under any severe stress conditions. Therefore, vaccination and drenching should be done either before drought or at the end of the drought.

General policy issues: The main policy should be to prepare a drought-combating programme for each area and all stakeholders (government, NGOs, community people and experts) should be consulted for designing such programme. There are eight policy objectives stated as below:-

1. To ensure that household food security is not compromised by drought.

2. To encourage and support farmers to adopt self-reliant approaches to drought risk.

3. To preserve adequate reproductive capacity in livestock herds in affected areas during drought periods.

4. To ensure the continuous supply of potable water to communities and to their livestock.

5. To minimise degradation of the natural resource base during droughts.

6. To provide appropriate help to pastoral and agricultural communities to recover quickly following a drought.

7. To ensure that economic activities of the affected areas should not be threatened after a drought.

8. To finance drought relief programmes efficiently and effectively by establishing an independent and permanent national drought fund.

National drought fund: The government should establish a permanent national drought fund to finance its obligations of food security, agriculture and livestock development and water supply in drought areas. This fund should be financed through annual contributions from the government, agriculture taxes and direct contributions from the pastoral communities during normal rainfall years, and assistance from international donors.

Instead of preparing and implementing emergency drought-relief programmes, the government should examine ways to support individuals and communities living in drought-prone areas and these long-term efforts must be aimed at the reduction of vulnerability of the concerned people to drought, the management of drought and the recovery from drought. For example, attention may be given to early-maturing and high-value crops, livestock breeds adapted to aridity, development of animal feeds from local products, small-scale irrigation, rainwater harvesting and improved post-harvesting technologies. In the pastoral areas the development of sustainable rangeland management practices may be addressed through reducing the livestock strength and encouraging the accumulation of fodder reserves.

Diversification of incomes remains a very important strategy to supplement earnings coming from livestock and rain-fed agriculture. Pastoral people always have such additional incomes from woodcutting, charcoal making, sale of labour, handicraft and other activities. To increase these activities support may be provided in the form of soft loans and specific investment incentives. Also new skill development programmes may be introduced in drought-prone areas. The range of options available for drought mitigation depends greatly on the availability of resources and community participation. Therefore, practical details may be worked out for each arid area after consultation of all stakeholders.

=A9 The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2001

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