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The Pakistan Agricultural Research Council has recently developed water efficient and disease-resistant varieties of wheat to address water shortage in the Indus basin and boost food security.

The four new wheat varieties have been developed to help farmers produce good crop yields despite water shortages, following reports of rapid groundwater depletion along the irrigated areas of the Indus basin.

The new seed varieties have also been fortified with zinc to provide greater nutritional value and meet growing foods demands, according to Dr Shahid Masood, chairman of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council’s evaluation committee.

“The additional zinc quantity in the wheat crop will help address malnutrition, especially in children and pregnant women,” he said. “The water-efficient variety will be useful for farmers along the Indus basin and in arid and semi-arid areas as this will help ease pressure on canals and groundwater for farming.”

The new seed varieties are also resistant to different types of rusts, a disease that poses a major threat to wheat production in the Indus basin, Masood said.

Depleting groundwater

Groundwater reservoirs in the irrigated areas of the Indus basin in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces are falling by 16-55 cm every year, according to a recent study carried out by International Waterlogging and Salinity Research Institute (IWASRI) of the Water and Power Development Authority, a government organisation.

Loss of water in major reservoirs has reduced yields of Rabi (winter) crops – such as wheat, barley, mustard and rapeseed – by 30%. The study argues this has caused farmers to excessively pump groundwater in Punjab.

Pervaiz Amir, country director of the Pakistan Water Partnership, said as well as providing more resilient seeds the government should promote strip cropping  and encourage farmers to grow a more diverse range of gains, such as millet, maize and sorghum, to boost food security.

In Pakistan 90% of water is used in agriculture. If this is not reduced, within five to ten years farmers in the Indus basin will no longer be able to grow water-intensive cash crops like sugar cane, rice and cotton.

Pakistan’s wheat production fell by 1.5 million tonnes this year due to water shortages and hail storms in some parts of the Indus basin, Amir said, adding lower yields have directly impacted the income of farmers.

Conserving water and boosting efficiency

Developing new seed varieties alone isn’t enough, argued Amir. Pakistan also needs to build more water storage capacity. Otherwise, water shortages could lead to food shortages.

Almost half of Pakistan’s population  does not have enough food for an active and healthy life, according to a recent report by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a NGO in Islamabad. A growing number of districts in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces are facing food insecurity according to the report. In Balochistan, the worst affected region in the country, 90% of districts suffer from food insecurity.

The SDPI study recommends the government should construct more small dams at the community or catchment level to conserve rainwater and recharge groundwater. It also suggests the government to improve crop irrigation techniques, since 40% of irrigation water is wasted.

Reaching the most vulnerable

New seeds often don’t reach the most vulnerable farmers, said Dr Shahid Ahmad, a former agricultural scientist with the National Agricultural Research Center. Pakistan lacks a strong seed distribution system and new seed varieties end up in the hands of few influential farmers.

“The issues like water-scarcity and food security cannot be addressed effectively until the government reaches small and subsistent farmers with new seed varieties of wheat,” he said.

India-Pakistan cooperation

Ahmad also urged the government to renegotiate the Indus Water Treaty with India to ensure enough water flows through the Indus basin to recharge groundwater in irrigated areas. “Under the treaty, Pakistan cannot get water from the Sutlej and Beas rivers and this has severely hampered water supplies along the Indus basin in Punjab,” he said.

The water-sharing treaty, signed in 1960, divides the Indus River system equally between India and Pakistan.

Both countries stand to benefit if they help each other improve groundwater recharge in the Indus basin, Ahmad suggested. India and Pakistan should also share agricultural research to improve food security and water reserves across the basin, he said.

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