Pakistan's mountain farmers
'helpless' in face of erratic weather
By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio
Pakistan - One night was all it took for Bibi Baskiya’s
fortunes to be reversed.
In June the young farmer
had sown maize on half an acre of land in Danyore, a scenic
mountain village in northern Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan
On Sept. 12 it was sunny
and the skies were so clear that Baskiya watered her crop
from a nearby spring, certain there would be no rain.
But that night, her hopes
of a good harvest were destroyed.
“A sudden rainstorm and
heavy winds flattened 80 percent of the standing crop,” she
said. The maize is now only good to be used as fodder for
her cattle, and she will not recover the cost of cultivating
Baskiya is one of many
farmers in this remote region whose livelihoods are
threatened by the effects of erratic weather and climate
change. Experts say measures are desperately needed to help
them adapt to unreliable rainfall, but few - if any – are
available so far.
“We farmers are really helpless before the inconsistent
weather,” said Baskiya. “We are thinking to abandon growing
maize and wheat, and cultivate cash crops like tomato and
potato instead that are short-duration and less
Maize is the most important summer crop after wheat in
northern Pakistan’s Upper Indus Basin (UIB). The grain is
harvested to eat, while the stover (dried stalks and leaves)
is used to feed livestock during the winter.
“Owing to erratic weather patterns, the area under the
staple crops in most of Gilgit-Baltistan province in UIB has
shrunk alarmingly, and vegetables are now being grown as
cash crops,” said Asmat Ali, director of the province’s
An estimated 70 percent of the wheat consumed locally must
now be imported from Punjab province in eastern Pakistan and
Sindh in the south, Ali added.
Cash crop farmers are also suffering the consequences of
extreme weather.Ali Da’ad, 50, a vegetable farmer in Danyore,
said his potato and tomato crops have been struck by
lightning several times.
“There has been a significant escalation in lightning
activity and thunderstorms over the last 10 years,
particularly during summer months,” Da’ad said.
The lightning has triggered fires, damaging crops and
endangering populated areas. At the same time, rainfall is
increasingly unpredictable, causing crops to fail.
“In Gilgit district, rains are no longer even and fall
patchily during the summer months,” Da’ad explained.
“Sometimes it is intense and sometimes not.”
Muhammad Iqbal, chairman of Local Support Organisation
Danyore (LSO-D), a nongovernmental group working for rural
development, said rains are unequal even within Danyore
village. “When it rains in the eastern part of the village,
the west remains without it,” he said.
DELAYED SNOW MELT
Gilgit-Baltistan is home to the world’s largest frozen water
reservoir, which feeds the Indus river system – a lifeline
for Pakistan’s agro-based economy.
Farmers in the province depend on melting snow from April
onwards to replenish streams, enabling them to sow seasonal
vegetables and maize from late May. But Da’ad said prolonged
winter weather is causing the snows to melt later, making it
difficult to plant crops in time.
Nek Parveen of LSO-D said this year streams filled 50 days
later than expected.
“Women wheat farmers in Sultanabad village (adjacent to
Danyore) suffered substantial financial losses early this
April, as they had to prematurely harvest after farmers
sensed (the crop’s) growth had halted,” Parveen said.
According to Ghulam Rasul, a scientist at the state-owned
Pakistan Meteorology Department in Islamabad, rainfall in
the province has become less frequent but more intense over
the past 50 years.
The decrease in winter precipitation and snowfall due to
rising temperatures in the area is affecting Pakistan’s
hydrological cycle and hampering the country’s agricultural
growth, Rasul said.
“Investing in farmers’ climate adaptation capacity building
and knowledge development can help them cope with impacts of
climatic variability on their crops,” said LSO-D’s Iqbal.
HARD TO REACH
Iqbal sees a need for the construction of small or
medium-sized reservoirs in the foothills and plains, so that
water from streams can be harvested for use during the dry
season and the winter, both for farming and domestic
But there has been little progress in the province so far,
where development agencies are hampered by the
inaccessibility of much of the terrain, political inertia,
and a volatile security situation due to conflict between
Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim sects.
Jamil Uddin, who manages programmes in the Gilgit region for
the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), said his
organisation plans to introduce climate mitigation and
adaptation measures for the province’s farmers.
“Our experiences show that information-sharing programmes
for mountain farmers and communities about better, proven
adaptation and mitigation measures can enable (them) to cope
with the aftermath of rapidly occurring climatic
variability,” he said.
The AKRSP hopes to bring climate-resilient crop varieties
and water conservation technologies to farmers.
According to LSO-D’s Iqbal, transmitting weather forecasts
via FM radio and free SMS texts on mobile phones would help
farmers, who now rely on indigenous techniques that are
increasingly inaccurate as weather patterns become harder to
Iqbal emphasised that helping mountain farmers adapt to the
impacts of climate change is vital to support the
livelihoods of rural people and maintain an acceptable level
of food security.