Experts fear termination of food security project will hit research sector
Termination of $30 million food security project by USAID has drawn criticism from experts and stakeholders and they fear that the abrupt decision will affect the ongoing research and scholar exchange programmes in the country.
They claimed the situation will badly hit the higher education sector and it will affect ties between the United States and Pakistan. Earlier on July 26, the US government terminated funding to a $30 million project of University of Agriculture Faisalabad (UAF). The US government issued a notification in this regard after completing close to 50% work on the US-Pakistan Centre for Advanced Studies in Agriculture and Food Security project.
The termination letter was issued days after Pentagon announced to withhold $50 million reimbursements under the Coalition Support Fund to Pakistan on the pretext that it is unable to verify whether Islamabad conducted adequate counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.
“No doubt USAID has been helping Pakistan by funding various schemes for the last three decades but we need to ask some solid reasons from the agency officials behind closure of the food security project,” former National Assembly speaker Syed Fakhar Imam said while speaking to The Express Tribune.
Fakhar Imam expressed dismay over the decision and said such situations lead nations to self-reliance. He added, “There is a need to further strengthen US-Pakistan ties irrespective of the closure of the project.” He remarked, “Human partnership is more important and durable than anything else.”
The former speaker lamented, “Our forestation cover is the lowest in the world and agriculture sector in the country was not given priority by any government.”
While commenting on the matter, UAF Vice-Chancellor Prof Dr Iqrar Ahmad Khan told The Express Tribune, “Higher Education Commission Chief Dr Mukhtar Ahmad has assured the varsity administration that the said project will be undertaken at all costs.” He said, “However, till completion of the required arrangements, the project’s future will hang in the balance.”
The VC maintained that agricultural growth could eradicate poverty and shutting down such a wonderful project will affect the work of top class researchers in Pakistan and the US.
He said, “Abrupt termination of the project will halt ongoing applied research schemes as 18 of them are being implemented in collaboration with University of California Davis and Washington State University professors.”
Iqrar Ahmed pointed out that discontinuation of the mega project will affect scholar exchange visit programme as over 20 had already applied for visa and 65 more were scheduled to visit US in the final two years of the project.
He said, “With the funding of USAID, two new degree programmes; MSc in Climate Change and MSc in Seed Science & Technology have been launched, whereas MSc in Nutrition & Dietetics will be launched in the next academic session.”
Besides, he elaborated that 16 new MS/PhD level courses were developed to include latest development and research ideas to reform the veterinary medicine curriculum. When contacted, HEC Adviser Dr Mehmood Butt told The Express Tribune, “The food security project has not been terminated due to any performance weakness.”
He assured the HEC will make arrangements for its sustainability. “The HEC, under 2025 vision, will establish 20 research based universities across the country and 30 centers of advanced studies in all the subjects will also be established in the coming years,” the adviser remarked.
He said, “The government is determined to increase the budget for higher education to a level where we can proudly claim that we are spending huge amount on it.”
“In order to boost the quality of PhD scholars, the HEC under Pak-US Knowledge Corridor is sending 10,000 students to renowned universities in the United States for PhD studies,” the HEC official confirmed. He hoped the first batch of 1,500 students will be dispatched in the mid of 2018.
“The others watered their sugarcane fields three times more than I did and not only did my plants grow taller, I had less disease in my crop than the rest.”
Ashraf says that an acre of his land yielded 1,000 maunds (1 maund = 37 kilogrammes) of sugarcane. Each maund sold for PKR 180 (USD 1.70). “I sold my crop for PKR 180,000 (USD 1,700) while most villagers could only sell between PKR 80,000 and 100,000 (USD 755-944).
Now a convert, he says he plans heed to every word from PCRWR. “I’d say that 99 per cent of the time they are right on the mark about rain,” he says.
Since last year, the PCRWR has sent weekly information to farmers like Ashraf through text messages, telling them how much water their crops need. They also send them weather forecasts.
“We started with 700 farmers in April 2016, all across Pakistan, and since January this year the number of farmers receiving the messages has increased to 10,000,” says Ahmed Zeeshan Bhatti, deputy director of PCRWR.
The agency has submitted a proposal to some organisations to support it in improving the advice and expanding the service to 100,000 farmers.
“We carried out a survey to gauge the response of the farmers to our advice and the feedback was encouraging,” he says. Between 25 and 30 farmers would call back immediately for further information.
“Our initial telephone survey revealed that farmers are saving almost 40 per cent of water by rationing irrigation,” he says, adding that the service is saving around 250 million cubic metres of irrigation water per year.
In the next phase of the programme, the PCRWR wants to train the farmers, as well as those working in the agriculture department, to use research and the meteorological advice properly.
“I think the information they send is quite useful for us as by conserving water, our profit margins will be greater,” says 37-year old farmer Mohammad Tariq from Faisalabad.
He, however, wishes for more types of information such as when to sow, when to spray with pesticides, how many times and what seed is good for which crop.
“Currently, we are totally dependent on whatever the sellers of agri-products tell us about using pesticides and seeds. We just accept whatever they say,” he says. “If it comes from the government agency, it would be authentic.”
“When the British designed the Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS) between 1847 to 1947, it was to turn 67 per cent of the basin area into farmland,” said Azeem Shah, regional researcher at Lahore based International Water Management Institute.
Even after the British left in 1947, the government irrigation engineers have been adding new dams, barrages, link and branch canals to the old system.
Today IBIS has three large dams, eighty-five small dams, nineteen barrages, twelve inter-river link canals, forty-five canal commands and 0.7 million tube wells.
Still, say experts, canal irrigation water efficiency can be increased from the current 33 per cent up to 90 per cent (in the developed countries) by repairing leakages in the system, smart metering and creating effective solutions for reducing the demand for water and at the same time increasing agricultural productivity.
Further, today, said Shah, the cropping intensity has increased by 150 per cent compared to 1947 with farmers not wanting to leave any fallow land. They also cultivate two or three crops.
“Over the last 70 years, the quantity of the water has remained the same but agriculture is competing with other sectors, such as industry, as well as the growing population,” says Shah. Today, says Shah, roughly 50 per cent of irrigation needs are met by IBIS canals and 50 per cent is extracted from the ground.
The SMS programme is supported technically and financially by the University of Washington’s Global Affairs Department, NASA’s applied sciences programme, the Ivanhoe Foundation and the Pakistan government.
When it started, the PCRWR was providing week-old information, but is now able to forecast for the present and the future. Hossain points out, however, that even if long-term forecasts were not offered, short-term weather information would still have value.
“Soil moisture has memory and inertia, so knowing how much it has rained and stayed in the soil the previous week is necessary to plan the coming week’s irrigation,” he explained.
The PCRWR is able to access global weather model forecasts with the help of the University of Washington, using a Chinese model and collaborating with the Pakistan Meteorological Department. “It is thus able to provide quite accurate information,” says Bhatti.
With Pakistan among many countries vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather conditions, using scientific methods to help farmers irrigate their land more efficiently is all the more necessary. Will this advice help farmers adapt to or fend off extreme climate phenomena in the years to come?
“That’s the idea,” says Bhatti, adding that the advice should help farmers tackle climate aberrations like heatwaves, and increased frequency of heavy and intense rainfall.
Hossain is a more cautious: “The skill of general circulation model projections – say into 2040 – is poor and of little empowering value to farmers. We are more focused on providing tactical information, rather than long-term strategic information for adaptation.”
Nor is this the only cellphone-based initiative taking place in Pakistan. In the province of Punjab, the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) along with the Agriculture Department of Punjab, is partnering with Telenor, a cellular company providing financial services to farmers who do not have bank accounts.
“Not only are we providing interest free loans to smallholder farmers we are providing them advisories on how to improve their yield by using modern agriculture practices and linking them to agriculture experts, research institutions, agriculture extension workers and input providers,” said Uzair Shahid, senior programme manager at the PITB. Step by small step, the farmers of Pakistan may end up seeing cellphone technology as an essential part of a more productive future.