Dry winter forces Pakistan farmers to seek jobs in towns

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Wheat farmer Nasir Tauqeer Khan would rather be home working in his fields. 


But since January, with Pakistan’s rains failing, he has laboured instead at a construction site in Islamabad.


“Had I stayed behind in my village, my family would have been starving,” the 45-year-old said. 


“I thought better to move to the city and try my luck.”


An unusually warm and nearly dry Pakistan winter, with rainfall just a third of normal, has ruined crops and made life increasingly hard for the country’s small-scale farmers, experts say.


Many farmers say they are struggling to adapt to increasingly unreliable weather, and in many cases have had to migrate to cities and towns to find jobs to help them survive.


“I feel really unable to keep pace with weather patterns that are shifting so rapidly,” said Khan, who comes from Gujar Khan, a village 55 kilometres from the capital.


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Late season heavy rain in mid-February and scattered snow in the mountains of northern Pakistan have raised hopes of recovery but have also led to new problems, including a late surge of weeds, farmers say.


“(Now) we have to buy herbicides to fight the weeds,” said Karam Nawaz, a corn grower in Sialkot district in northeastern Pakistan.


Rab Nawaz Gujar, who grows mustard, pulses and barley on 200 acres in the suburbs of Chakwal in northeastern Pakistan, predicted that harvests of winter crops would be down in his area by half.


Winter rain this year was two months late, and rainfall has been nearly 65 percent below normal since Jan. 1, said Ghulam Rasul, director general at the Pakistan Meteorological Department. He said that could reduce winter harvests of some crops by at least 30 percent.


One-quarter of Pakistan’s farmland is entirely dependent on rainfall. In those areas farmers growing wheat, corn, mustard, pulses and vegetables may not be able to save much of their crop, said Sirat Asghar, a former Pakistan agriculture secretary.


Pakistan’s key wheat crop, which is seeded between October and December and harvested in March and April, is likely to decline from an expected 26 million tonnes to 23 million tonnes, agriculture officials said.


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“The worst impacts of dry and warm winter have come for wheat farmers,” said Ibrahim Mughal, chair of the Pakistan Agri Forum.


Agriculture scientist Khuda Buksh said the expected decline in harvests could trigger a spike in wheat prices, and some poor rural households would find it difficult to harvest or buy enough to meet their needs.


Weather scientists at the Pakistan Meteorological Department blame the extended dry winter conditions on a combination of global warming-induced climate change and a strong El Niño.


“The country has suffered so much because of the El Niño,” said Rasul.


However, he predicted that the phenomenon would largely have passed by April.


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