Thanks to drip irrigation, parts of the Cholistan Desert are now bearing fruit for local farmers.
In spite of the challenges of climate change, especially in arid areas of the world, orange, lemon and olive trees are flourishing and bearing fruit on inhospitable sand dunes in a region of Pakistan. It’s thanks to an advanced farming technology known as drip irrigation.
Agriculture is a main part of Pakistan’s economy, contributing as it does more than a fifth to the country’s GDP. The sector also employs nearly half of the workforce in the world’s seventh most populous country that currently needs to feed 200 million people. And their numbers are going to swell in coming years.
Because of overpopulation, as well as reasons of geography and climate, Pakistan is facing severe risks to food security. Encouragingly, however, efforts are underway to adopt advanced agricultural techniques in order to boost yields and make inhospitable terrain suitable for growing crops.
In the Cholistan Desert, which covers an area of some 16,000sqkm within Pakistan, water scarcity from prolonged droughts and unpredictable rainfall requires local people to struggle to maintain access to clean water, let alone save enough for agriculture. The high salt content of underground water sources further exacerbates the situation for them.
A local farmer called Hasan Abdullah, whose farmland is next to the Cholistan desert, never saw anything grow on the 50 acres of his farmland that sprawls on barren dunes. But that was before he embraced the practice of drip irrigation.
Abdullah was the first farmer in the area to apply drip irrigation on a part of his land in 2015. He was rewarded for his pioneering spirit in the form of thriving fruit orchards. Where there was once only barren sand, there are now fruiting trees. Without this effective irrigation technique, the Pakistani farmer says, the “dune would not have produced anything.” No oranges, no lemons, no olives.
In Pakistan, a country with persistent water shortages, agriculture accounts for more than 80% of water usage, much of which is wasted through flood irrigation. In other words, wasteful practices have worsened an already dire situation. Not only do many local farmers face fluctuations in water supplies from the Indus River, which is their main water source but whose erratic nature is increasing with climate change. They are also facing water shortages of their own making through wasteful use.
Abdullah’s farmland is located at the tail end of the Indus Basin irrigation system where all the available water is frequently used up by farmers for irrigation. Drip irrigation, also known as trickle irrigation, can change that by serving as a far more efficient water and nutrient delivery system.
In drip irrigation water and liquid nutrients are simultaneously delivered across crop plantations by a system of plastic pipes with small diameters that facilitate only limited water flow. Nutrient liquid is then applied directly to crops in exact amounts through outlets called emitters or drippers. This method allows farmers to regulate water flow effectively, thereby reducing water wastage, runoff and evaporation. It has worked wonders in countries like Israel where almost all the land is arid.
According to the Agriculture Department of Punjab State’s government, compared to traditional forms of irrigation drip irrigation can help local farmers save up to 95% of water even while they can also reduce fertilizer use. Yet for all these benefits few farmers have embraced drip irrigation.
“It is difficult for a traditional farmer to come to terms with it,” explained Malik Mohammad Akram, director general of the On Farm Water Management (OFWM) wing in the Agriculture Department. “Unless he sees the soaked soil with his eyes, he cannot believe the plant has been well watered.”
The government of Pakistan is enthusiastically promoting effective irrigation techniques as a solution to water shortages. So is the government of neighboring India, where farmers are facing similar problems.
In India, severe water scarcity is exacerbated by the country’s vast cotton industry. In order to reduce the water usage of this key economic sector, officials have been introducing the technique of drip irrigation in cotton cultivation. Farmers are encouraged to use drip irrigation on their land with the help of generous government subsidies.
Cotton, which is India’s largest export commodity, is extensively grown in the country. Some 50 million people are involved in its trade and processing. Cotton crops are highly water thirsty, however. In 2013 cotton cultivation used up 38 billion cubic meters of water, which would have been enough to provide for the daily needs of 85% of Indians in a country where millions suffer from chronic water shortages.
Producing 1kg of cotton requires 22,500 liters of water on average in India, according to the Water Footprint Network. None of that water can then be used for anything else because it either evaporates or gets badly contaminated. This matters because, according to the country’s Central Water Commission, as much as 83% or more of water in India is used in agriculture even as millions of locals continue to lack daily access to freshwater. The industry and utility sectors, meanwhile, consume less than 5% of water in India.
In the hope of saving up to a fifth of water used in agriculture, the country’s Agriculture Department is promoting drip irrigation, which has proved successful in reducing water waste with various plants in many states of India. The results of experimental projects showed that by applying trickle irrigation, not only can water waste be reduced but crop production can be increased too.
“We are taking up the project seriously and will try our best to bring more and more farmers under the system in the cotton belt by providing them all-possible help,” said Kahan Singh Pannu, secretary of India’s Agriculture Department.