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Pakistan at Risk

by Haroon Akram Gill

A close look at climate change and its impact on Pakistan’s agriculture.

In Brief

  • Climate change is, in fact, a global phenomenon. The Earth’s temperature is on continuous rise, causing climate extremes, ultimately affecting major agricultural regions and creating food crises. Pakistan is no exception; rather, we are seriously at risk and have been put at the top of the list of the developing countries for losses in agriculture and crops because of impact of disasters on agriculture and food security. The situation warrants immediate action and concerted efforts to address these challenges.
  • Pakistan is among the top 36 countries facing water scarcity. Severe water-stressed and heat-stressed conditions in arid and semi-arid regions are leading to reduced agriculture productivity and power generation and ultimately threatening Pakistan in terms of food security, water security and energy security.
  • Pakistan needs immediate and comprehensive plan of action to counter the negative impact of climate change on our crop production and food security as research has confirmed that overall production is on the decline due to changing weather patterns and frequent occurrence of extreme weather events.

The Earth is expected to face a rise of 5 to 7 °C (41-44.6°F) in its temperature by the end of 21st century. The temperature is continuously on the rise, however a rapid rise in temperature has been witnessed during the last some decades as the pace of industrial development remains rapid. Pakistan, in general and Indus Delta in particular, is expected to experience a 4 to 6°C (39.2-42.8°F) rise in temperature in the same period and on an average 0.5°C (32.9°F) per decade. This rise in temperature is causing climate extremes which is ultimately damaging major agricultural regions and creating food crises.

We are already under the cycle of extreme weather events, i.e., floods, drought and heat waves, cyclones, glacial outbursts and tsunamis. The continuously and rapidly occurring climate related disasters and rising temperature is already damaging our crops and pushing Pakistan in to the brink of food insecurity. It would have horrifying impacts on our food system if we do not go for a quick fix.

Potential threats due to climate change

Potential threats to Pakistan due to this changing climate and increasing temperature are; increased variability of monsoon, rapid recession of Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalayan glaciers threatening water inflows into the Indus River System (IRS) that can increase the risk of floods and increased siltation of major dams that can result in greater loss of reservoir capacity. Some other climate change related concerns for Pakistan are identified as: increase in deforestation, loss of biodiversity, increased health risks (heat strokes, pneumonia, malaria and other vector-borne diseases) and risks to other vulnerable ecosystems (e.g., rangelands, degraded lands, mountainous areas etc.,). Water-stressed and heat-stressed conditions in arid and semi-arid regions, leading to reduced agrarian productivity and power generation are some other major threats to Pakistan in terms of Food Security, Water Security and Energy Security.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in its 2015 report, “The Impact of Disasters on Agriculture and Food Security” has put Pakistan at the top among the developing countries at risk for losses in agriculture and crops. The report notes, “When examining the wider impact of disasters, the study shows that beyond production losses, medium- and large-scale disasters can have a significant impact across the food value chain, with negative consequences on trade flows of agricultural commodities, sector growth, food and non-food agro-industries, and ultimately national economies. For example, crop production losses caused by the 2010 floods in Pakistan directly affected cotton ginning, rice processing and flour and sugar milling, while cotton and rice imports surged. Agriculture absorbed 50 percent of the $10 billion in total damage and losses, and sector growth dropped from 3.5 percent to 0.2 percent between 2009 and 2010, as did national gross domestic product (GDP) – which is sum of all final goods and services produced within that economy during a specified period – from 2.8 percent to 1.6 percent between the same years.”

Read more: Agriculture: Through the Ages in Pakistan


The report further records, “At the same time, disaster impact on agriculture has a direct effect on livelihoods and food security. Disasters can cause unemployment and/or a decline in wages and therefore income among farmers and farm laborers. They lower the availability of food commodities in local markets, leading to food inflation. These pressures reduce households’ purchasing capacity, restrict access to food, deplete savings and can force the sale of vital productive assets and erode livelihoods. Ultimately, the quantity and quality of food consumption is reduced and food insecurity and malnutrition increase, particularly among the most vulnerable households. For instance, the 2010 floods in Pakistan affected 4.5 million workers, two-thirds of whom were employed in agriculture, and over 70 percent of farmers lost more than half of their expected income.”

A recent research conducted by the Department of Agronomy of the University of Agriculture Faisalabad (UAF) and AgMIP—an international consortium committed to improve substantially food security due to climate change  and to enhance adaptation capacity—says that there will be increase of 2.8°C (37.04°F) in maximum and 2.2°C (35.96°F) in minimum temperature for mid-century (2040-2069). An increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is also expected from 390 to 571 parts per million (ppm). Vulnerability of the agriculture crops to extreme climate events (floods, droughts and cyclones etc.,) will increase with time due to increased climatic changes and global warming.

Impact of climate change on major crops

Wheat and Rice

Wheat and rice are consumed at large in Pakistan while rice is also among top export commodities. These crops are cultivated in different agro-ecological zones of the country. Each zone has diverse socioeconomic, hydrological and climatic conditions.

Wheat is the main staple grain food of Pakistan. It has a share of 2.2 percent in GDP and 10.1 percent in value addition and has three major groups, i.e., bold grain size, medium grain size and small grain size. Similarly, rice is second staple grain food of Pakistan. Its share in GDP is 0.6 percent and 2.7 percent in value addition with two major groups, i.e., Basmati 48 percent and Irri (coarse rice) which is 52 percent of total rice production.

According to a report, per capita Wheat Availability in Pakistan’s Punjab province estimated over different time periods using climate change scenarios, does not provide a mitigating situation. Considering current growth rate, it is expected that population of the province would increase many times in future. As a consequence of rising population, there would be significant impact on food security because wheat is a staple crop in Pakistan.

According to projections, the rising temperature has an adverse impact on wheat production in Punjab whereas the population is rising on the other hand. The combination threatens food security. Results indicate that in 2012, per capita wheat availability was 198 kilograms per annum and it would be 105 kg per annum in 2031 and 84 kilograms per annum in 2050.

The situation is not different in other regions too. Ahsan Jamil, an ICIMOD fellow, in his report, Adapting agriculture to climate change must for achieving food security in Gilgit-Baltistan explains the situation of food insecurity in the country’s Gilgit-Baltistan area. According to the report over the last many years, continuously rising temperatures in mountain valleys of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Gilgit-Baltistan regions in Pakistan’s north have increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters, particularly reduction of agricultural land due to rivers expansion, and flash floods because of rising number of glacial lakes that have touched more than 3,000 as of now. This has put sustainability of agriculture sector, a major source of livelihood for thousands of mountain people at stake.

With precipitation patterns now becoming more erratic and unreliable and floods more common, the farming communities are finding it difficult to continue with growing crops. Sudden cloudbursts, flash floods and weird upheaval in temperatures in mountain valleys, have long proved bane for the hapless farmers, who are finding it hard to cope with the vagaries of these weather events.

The report further observes Shigar valley—which was considered the hub for wheat supply to entire Baltistan some years ago—is experiencing wheat shortage at the moment. Extreme weather conditions, rising number of glacial lakes, land reduction and heavy rainfall are the reasons behind this phenomenon. These factors have badly impacted the productivity of farms. People are leaving farming and shifting to other sources of livelihoods such as mining and gemstones etc., in distant urban areas. In corollary, food insecurity in mountain areas is continuously on the rise and previously food-secure mountain communities are fast becoming food-insecure.

An agro-climatologist Dr. Fahd Rasul says due to changing climate and extreme climate events there is a threat of significant decrease in rice-wheat cropping system. “Two different crop models named DSSAT and APSIM claim 15 and 17 percent mean rice yield reduction respectively. Whereas same models tell us that wheat mean yield reduction would be up to 14 and 12 percent respectively.” According to him these assessments are needed to be provided to the decision makers with the information for developing appropriate plans to reduce the exposed climate changes for food security and prosperous future.

Read more: The State of Seed in Pakistan


Cotton once the top export crop of Pakistan has faced the most horrific impact of climate change in last two years. It is particularly because of the arrival of early monsoon in the months of June and July and abnormal variation in temperatures which adversely affected the growth and development of the cotton crop. According to official sources the total sowing area of cotton in Punjab was 5,813,000 acres. Out of which 211,677 acres had been damaged by the flood in 2014. Average yield was 23 per 40 kilograms per acre and total loss in production had been assessed at 4,868,577 per 40 kilograms, amounting to PKR 12,658 million. The situation went from bad to worse to the extent that Pakistan had to import the cotton worth $4 billion during last year. Unusually high rainfall (greater than 300 millimeters-mm) during the months of June, July and August and September brought crop under severe stress at an early growth stage. These observations are supported by previous record of low production coupled with high rainfall (greater or equal to 400 mm) in 1976, 1983 and 1993. The main reason of low yield in the year 2015 was an unusual rainfall pattern, which has certain direct effects and a series of indirect effects. Those include creation of partial waterlogged conditions, non-development of normal feeding roots in above mentioned conditions, stunted plant growth due to less or no development of feeding roots. Due to fewer uptakes of nutrients there is a direct effect on photosynthesis mechanism that leads to stunted growth and fruit parts shedding. Heavy rainfall has also formed a favorable environment for increasing/breeding of whitefly and Jassid, less pollination, which leads to the flower shedding. It created high humidity favorable environment for fungal diseases and hurdles in weed management.

High rains also induced shedding of fruiting parts, plant’s mortality, and infestation of weed population, leaching of nutrients from soil, poor pest control and stunted plant growth. Less sunshine and high humidity due to extended wet and cloudy weather adversely affected nitrogen application, pesticide spray, weed control and other agricultural practices.



Sunflower and Sugarcane

Sunflower showed yield reduction up to 25 percent at elevated temperature of 10°C to 20°C (50 to 68°F) beyond 2050. The model also simulated that with rising temperature, sunflower yield would increase in well irrigated and wet regions (Gujranwala) however in hot conditions (Multan) yield would suffer severely.

Director General Pakistan Meteorology Department Dr. Ghulam Rasul is afraid that we might lose crop like sugarcane and rice in future due to water scarcity and rising temperature. He blames poor water management practices for this loss. “Sugarcane and rice need much more water and despite having ideal conditions and soil for the growth of these two crops, I am afraid we will lose these in future as we have to shift to crops which don’t consume as much water. Pakistan is already a water stressed country due to our poor water management and non-serious attitude towards water storage while the situation is getting worse,” he adds.

“Another trend of shifting sugarcane crops towards southern Punjab is also an alarming thing. This might be due to the interests of sugar mill owners but it is not in the interest of the population of that area,” he observes and warns that safeguarding the interests of these mill owners would damage the right of poor to live.

In general, an increase in temperature will lead to shortening of growing season length (GSL) for wheat and rice crops and Basmati rice tract of the country. The results suggest that the aggregate impact of climatic parameters i.e., changes in temperature and rainfall exerted an overall negative impact on overall cereal crop yields, given that the management practices and use of technology remain unchanged.

Scientists present solutions

University of Agriculture Faisalabad, through its Department of Agronomy, in collaboration with AgMIP is working to measure the impacts of climate change on Pakistan’s food crop and the solutions to cope with the situation. The project is working on inter-comparisons of various technologies to improve crop and economic models to produce enhanced assessments by the crop and economic modeling communities researching climate change agricultural impacts and adaptation.

Scientists agree that assessments and adaptation planning are needed for better future. Keeping in view the changing weather patterns, scientists have proposed the solutions to increase production and to counter the climate change. Farmers can have good results by selecting improved cultivars (short lag phase, deep root system) and better management (high input use efficiency, manipulation of sowing time and planting density). For rice transplantation of 25 days old nursery has been suggested. Wheat sowing should be 15 days earlier than present sowing date. “While 15 percent and 25 percent increase in planting density of rice and wheat, respectively and use of 15 percent more fertilizer in rice and 20 percent in wheat will give amazing results,” they claim.

According to scientists reduction in rice yield of about 17 percent and wheat yield of about 14 percent in rice-wheat cropping zone and an economic loss of 83 percent farm household can happen if we continue to use current production technology in the changing climate. A survey conducted over 3,000 households reveals that the local farmers are adapting to these changes in their own way without guidance or training. The farmers have started sowing their crops 2 to 3 weeks late.

The growing need is to develop wheat varieties having adaptive capacity to climate change conditions because changing climatic conditions would play an important role in determining future wheat yield. Important factors in increasing wheat supply include farm management practices and adoption of technology. There is also a need to educate farmers in using new varieties having adaptive capacity to climate change and crop management practices which could ultimately lead them to get higher crop income from the land. To achieve this end, extension staff can arrange training programs for farmers while making more investment in agriculture would increase food security in the country, the scientists believe.

They suggest that these issues can be addressed by using improved and site specific production technology, sequestration of greenhouse gases, surface seeding practice and bed planting of wheat, integrated pest and nutrient management, laser land leveling (Precision Agriculture), cultivation of aerobic rice and intensification of rice-wheat system.

Prof. Dr. Ashfaq Ahmad Chattha, Lead Principal Investigator (AgMIP), Program Chair, Climate Change, UAF urges to establish and strengthen interaction among stakeholders. He emphasizes on the need of Agro-climatic Advisory Services for farmers saying, “Early warning system, continuous crop monitoring and forecasting using climate, crop and economic models can be very helpful in this regard.”

Read more: Pakistan’s Cotton Emergency

Dr. Chattha recommends election of improved cultivars (short lag phase, deep root system, climate resilient). He also suggests that wheat sowing should be 15 days earlier than present sowing dates. While his other suggestion is to increase  planting density of rice and wheat by 15 percent and 25 percent respectively and increase use of fertilizer in rice (by 15 percent) and wheat (by 20 percent).

According to Dr. Ghulam Rasul, the expansion of summer is affecting not only the growing season but also the crop biological cycle. Explaining this, he says, the sowing time of cotton which used to be in May now has shifted to April and as a result, there is a heightened threat of pests and insects at harvest time which can’t be controlled. Another issue, he says, that our crops will be facing due to increased temperature will be “evapotranspiration” (the term is mixture of two processes i.e., evaporation- loss of water from surface of soil due to increased temperature and transpiration-loss of water from plant’s stem due to increased temperature). It would impact the crops at double the scale and weak crops like cotton would not be able to survive to the increased temperature, he adds.

Forest cover

Dr. Mamoona Wali Muhammad in her study Forest Conservation Challenges and the adaptability to REDD concept in Pakistan notes that Pakistan has only five percent of land area under forests and is listed among low forest cover countries. Still Pakistan has different types of forests i.e., moist temperate conifer forests, dry temperate conifer forests, coastal mangroves, riverine forests, sub-tropical scrub forests and irrigated plantations including linear plantations. There are also some of the world’s unique forests types including Oak, Juniper, Chilghoza pine and Deodar.

According to her although among low forest cover countries, Pakistan has a high rate of deforestation and forest degradation. The rate of deforestation is estimated at 27,000 hectares annually. Her study states forests in all provinces and regions particularly Gilgit-Baltistan and KP are under severe pressure. Local communities solely depend upon these forests for livelihood by selling wood commercially. Government has no mechanism to provide positive incentives to legal owners and right holders of these forests for not cutting down trees.

According to the study, ecosystem services of forests significantly impact regulating water, controlling soil erosion, climate resilient safety nets and deforestation in watershed areas adversely impacting the yield and quality of water at outlets besides triggering land degradation and loss of biodiversity. In riparian, low-lying and coastal areas, deforestation causes catastrophic floods and sea water intrusion inflicting huge economic losses.

According to a report by Planning Commission of Pakistan’s Task Force on Climate Change it was envisaged to increase forest cover from 4.9 percent of the total land area in 2005 to 5.2 percent in 2010 and 6.0 percent by 2015 while several afforestation projects like Rachna Doab Afforestation Project were started. Every year tree-planting campaigns were launched during spring and monsoon seasons. We are fond of making world records by creating temporary events like as many as 541,176 saplings were planted in one day on 15 July 2009, which was a world record for any country by that time. Last year, KP government announced a marvelous campaign of planting a billion trees that is also being taken as a record, praised and discussed all over the world.

Besides “the afforestation and reforestation activities”, “improvement of the rangelands by proper range land management”, and “to reclaim nearly 6 million hectare of salt affected waste land and large areas of sandy desert by growing salt tolerant, fast growing grasses, shrubs and trees to be used as fodder; an increase in the area protected for conservation of wildlife from 11.3 percent of the total land in 2004-05 to 11.6 percent by 2009-10 and to 12.0 percent by 2015” was in plans but never became reality.

Now sensing the intensity of the issue, Pakistan government has formulated the Forest Policy in 2015. Under the policy the government has plans to expand the forest cover. FATA and AJK routinely implement their respective tree planting programs and projects and on an average, a target of 70-80 million tree saplings is fixed annually at national level which is absolutely insufficient to meet even domestic demands for wood.

There is a dire need to undertake a long-term mass afforestation program by Federal government in collaboration with all provinces and territories. Under the policy measures, the government has focused on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). This international program by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC says that any action that reduces emission of carbon from forests is eligible for incentives. In phase three of this program, which is likely to be started in 2020, forest communities can get results-based payments under REDD+ for quantified and verified emission reduction from forests. A financial mechanism to ensure predictable financing as agreed in UNFCCC Conference of the Parties CoP-21 Decisions called the Paris Agreement for REDD+ shall be adopted when the same is ratified by the Government of Pakistan.



Pakistan Meteorological Department has set up the National Agromet Centre (NAMC) which aims to address the needs of the farming community and its other related stakeholders, through provision of weather advisory information and services.

Water insecurity and poor management

As per a report by International Monetary Fund (IMF) Pakistan is among the top 36 countries facing water scarcity. The situation is expected to get even worse by the mid of century as the projections tell that Pakistan will make its position to top 20. Per capita annual water availability in Pakistan has dropped from 5,600 cubic meters at independence to the current level of 1,017 cubic meters, and is projected to decline further.

Demand for water is on the rise—projected to reach 274 million acre-feet (MAF) by 2025 while supply is expected to remain stagnant at 191 MAF. The situation will lead to demand-supply gap of approximately 83 MAF threatening severe water insecurity.

Because of the country’s arid and semi-arid climate, agriculture in Pakistan is predominantly irrigated (90 percent) and consumes about 95 percent of annual available surface water. Though the bulk of farmland is irrigated through the canal system, farmers also utilize water from other sources including groundwater exploitation and this has increased significantly in recent decades. According to a report  in absence of groundwater regulatory framework anyone can install any number of wells of any capacity, at any depth and can pump any amount of water at any time. In 1960, the number of tube wells in Pakistan were about 20,000 which has now increased to over 1,000,000. This practice has led to the groundwater depletion, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Pakistan stores only 10 percent of the surface water flow. The ratio is 25-40 percent worldwide whereas India saves 38 percent. There is a dire need for water policy and for the purpose a strong political will and a need for bridging inter-provincial trust gap. Unfortunately provinces are fighting on their water share and not keeping the national interest in view. On the other hand, India has made dams on Ravi, Chenab and Sutlej. Consequently, these rivers remain dry all year round. India is also helping Afghanistan for building dams on River Kabul that will emerge as an issue in the near future.

Pakistan needs to introduce effective transboundary water reforms for these transboundary severe issues. An effective irrigation system can play a pivotal role in overcoming the damages being done by the changing climate. Pakistan’s irrigation system once considered among the best irrigation systems of the world, now has become very weak.  Working procedures for the Irrigation Department have become outdated. These procedures are given in Manual of Irrigation Practices written in 1943. It contains insufficient information and doesn’t tell anything about flood management. The manual should be revised seeking advice from experts and incorporating latest international practices adjusted to local needs.

Read more: Technology: The Missing Link in Pakistan’s Agriculture Sector

Unplanned construction in flood plain is another problem that is adding to the damages done to the crops by flooding and finally leading to the food insecurity. A new law should be promulgated to regulate constructions in flood plains as well as areas likely to be used for development of water resources in future. Experts are of the view that the water management system of Pakistan has not the tendency to cope with extreme events occurring due to rapidly changing climate. Water management practices are also needed to be in accordance with the international practices and standards.

Pakistan needs immediate and comprehensive plan of action to counter the negative impact of climate change on our crop production and food security as research has confirmed that overall production is on the decline due to changing weather patterns and frequent occurrence of extreme weather events.

Haroon Akram Gill is an environmental journalist and is a Climate Leader at the Climate Reality Project. He writes for the News International on the subject.


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One Comment;

  1. Salman Hafeez said:

    Thank you for the information. You have summarised the information in precise fashion. However, can you please provide further details about the estimates you have presented? Specially, the confidence intervals for the temperature rise estimates? Which model has been used to predict the temperature rise and what values of the discount rates, equilibrium climate sensitivity and transient climate response were used? I will appreciate if you can provide references to these questions as well.