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Rice farmer Bilal Mustafa turns pale when he hears on the radio that most of Pakistan will get less-than-normal rainfall this monsoon season.

“I felt like shivering and nearly fainted when I listened to the news late June this year on radio. Listening to the news was just like getting a hard blow on my head,” he recalls.

Standing over a furrow in his field in the southern coastal district of Badin, Mustafa told thethirdpole.net that most of the rice seedlings planted on his 13-hectare plot in the second half of June would die if his field does not get drenched by rain by the end of July, or the first week of August, at the latest.

Elsewhere in the country, Abdul Aziz, in charge of the control room at the Sukkur barrage, says that this year there is little chance of any flood in the Indus. The Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) has predicted little rainfall this year.

The monsoon clouds usually reach Pakistan by the last week of June or the first week of July, but over most of the country, there is little sign of them this year. If the PMD prediction proves correct, there may be a serious water shortage for staple crops sown between April and July, particularly rice, cotton and sugarcane.

Farmers in Punjab and Balochistan echo the concerns of Mustafa, saying their crops are drying up for want of water.

“Last month, I learnt about the poor rains this monsoon season from an official in the district agriculture department. I have deliberately delayed sowing of rice and cotton this year, for the first time in many years, to stave off possible financial loss,” says Mehar Ali, a 45-year-old farmer in Rajanpur, a district in southern Punjab.

“Almost all the farmers who have planted rice and cotton are now very worried over the future of their crops as their fields are drying up and this will plunge many farmers into a debt trap. Many farmers procure seed and other farm inputs on credit and clear their debts after selling their harvests at the end of season,” he explains.

Ibrahim Mughal, Chairman of Pakistan Agricultural Forum, says even if the rains come in August that is of no benefit to farmers. Their plants will be dead by then.

“Timely rains in July are good for achieving robust production. Rains received after the month do not help boost the crop yields. In other words, delayed rains mean low crop productivity,” Mughal told thethirdpole.net.

The rains are also vital for recharging the hydropower reservoirs. South Asia gets between 70 and 80% of its annual rainfall during the monsoon. So now that the monsoon is turning out to be weak this year, the situation is grim.

On June 16, PMD issued an advisory on monsoon rainfall in the country, forecasting below- normal rainfall in Sindh, Balochistan and Southern Punjab provinces, but nearly normal rainfall in North Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan provinces and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

The PMD also forecast that the upper half of Pakistan including upper Indus Basin is likely to witness erratic rainfall, which may become intense in late August.

So far, there has been no monsoon rain this year except for a few short spells in scattered areas of northern Pakistan, such as Swabi, Swat, Parachinar, Kohat, Abbottabad, Lahore and Islamabad.

Average monsoon rainfall between July-September for Pakistan is around 255 to 260 millimetres. But this year, the PMD’s prediction is 140.9 mm.

Azmat Hayat Khan, weather scientist at PMD, says, “We are likely to have 40 to 60% less monsoon rains this time and the deficient rainfall could seriously affect agriculture, particularly in Sindh.”

Pakistan has witnessed 11 such episodes in the past, he recalls.

Last month the head of PMD Arif Mahmood issued an alert about the possibility of a severe drought that could hit southern Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan.

These regions rely on monsoon rains for subsistence farming and fodder for livestock. Below-normal rainfall will result in low fodder production, resulting in food insecurity and a possible increase in malnutrition rates, Mahmood told thethirdpole.net.

“If the forecast actualises, rice, cotton and sugarcane would certainly suffer a hard blow and more or less overall production will be 50-60% below normal, particularly water-intensive rice, which is highly vulnerable to erratic rains,” says Pervaiz Amir, an agro-economist and water expert at the Pakistan Water Partnership, a chapter of the Global Water Partnership.

So Pakistan may not be able to achieve its production targets for summer crops, warned Amir.

High temperatures and dry conditions in June and July cause evaporation of water from irrigation networks and farmlands, especially in the southern parts of the country.

“The monsoon rainfall plays a crucial role in reducing the evaporation and meeting the water requirement of crops in the rain-fed areas,” commented Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, vice president of the World Meteorological Organisation’s Asia chapter.

Ghulam Rasul, senior weather scientist and climatologist at PMD, says in southern Pakistan, the desert district of Tharparkar that borders India’s desert state Rajasthan, will suffer badly if the summer monsoon rains remain below normal.

Tharparkar had its worst drought in a decade last year, and it was the third drought year in a row. Over 100 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced to migrate out of the area.

“Last year’s drought-led famine conditions will be further aggravated in Tharparkar district if this time the monsoon again fails the already parched district,” says Azmat Hayat Khan of PMD.

The Deputy Commissioner of Tharparkar claims that necessary arrangements are being made to tackle possible drought and famine conditions. He told thethirdpole.net that temperatures in the desert had been abnormally high this summer and the water table was down in most wells.

As monsoon rains are becoming increasingly erratic, agro-economist and water expert Pervaiz Amir suggests that adopting water-smart farming techniques will be crucial to keeping harvests up in the country.

“There is a pressing need to adopt smart farming techniques which – among other things – stress water efficient farm technology to sow more crops per cubic metre of water,” he said. That will help “cope with the emerging water scenario for Pakistan as rains decline in quantity and become unpredictable.”

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