Different patterns of monsoon rains have made it increasingly hard for rice farmer Sardar Muhammad to bring in a good harvest.
But learning how to plant seed directly in his fields – rather than transplanting seedlings, as farmers have for centuries in Punjab – is helping him manage scarce water better and get a decent crop.
Growing rice this way “requires less labour, less irrigation”, he said. The rice seed is sown straight into moist soil and does not require continuous submergence.
So far 30 farmers have applied the improved, water-saving rice cultivation technique on a total of 48 hectares (118.6 acres) in Punjab province. With the traditional method, in contrast, rice seedlings are first cultivated in nurseries for several weeks before being transferred to flooded fields. About a third more water is required through the growing cycle, and the crop takes 15 to 20 days longer to mature.
On average in Pakistan, some 3,000 litres of water are used to produce 1 kilogramme of rice, which is the main staple food.
But as the country’s already scarce water resources dwindle, there is increasing pressure to find more water-efficient growing methods.
A recent report from the Planning Commission of Pakistan shows that, in 1951, per-capita water availability was 5,650 cubic metres. By 2010, that figure had plunged to 1,000 cubic metres and is projected to fall to 800 cubic metres by 2025, when the population is expected to hit 221 million.
Finding ways to grow more food with less water will be crucial in Pakistan as climate change alters weather patterns, affects monsoon rainfall and reduces groundwater, experts say.
Planting rice directly in fields may be one way to keep up food production and help reduce the migration already happening as hard-hit, small-scale farmers give up on their fields and trek to towns and cities in search of other work.
Muhammad, who grows rice on his family’s 15 hectares (37 acres) in Sheikhupura district, said switching to the new planting method had cut the amount of irrigation needed in his rice fields by around 40 percent, a crucial change as groundwater levels drop.
“This is really no small benefit,” he said, smiling. “This is helping us adapt to water shortages.”
Muhammad learned the new technique under a four-year agricultural innovation programme, launched in 2013 by partners including the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Rice Research Institute.
The $30 million project aims to help Pakistan’s farmers boost their profits while coping with climate change risks to the sustainability of water and agriculture, said John Groarke, head of USAID in Pakistan.
Besides its work on rice, the programme has introduced heat-tolerant maize and higher-yielding wheat varieties, he added.
Muhammad Ibrahim Mughal, chairman of Agri Forum Pakistan, a farmers’ rights organisation, said traditional rice cultivation was time-consuming and laborious, as farmers spend long hours bent over in fields.
It has also become less viable as river flows decrease and groundwater declines, he added.
As a result, farmers are now increasingly willing to experiment with the new growing technique, said Sardar Karim, another farmer from Punjab province.
Direct sowing is producing a 25 percent boost in harvests under ideal conditions on the test plots, said Iftikhar Ahmed, chairman of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council.