Investing in drylands | Political economics

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Over the last century, domestic demand for food has grown geometrically. According to the United Nations, at the current growth rate, the population is expected to double by 2050. By then, the demand for food is expected to increase between 59 and 98%.

It is amazing to see the enormous potential of the agricultural sector to deal with this dilemma. The agricultural sector has a knock-on effect on the national economy. Pakistan’s agricultural sector needs to be modeled in a way we have never seen before to meet the projected food demand.

Water shortage, urbanization, lack of investment and rising production costs linked to climate change are a challenge for national food security.

Traditional food production in Pakistan is not enough to meet the demand. Pakistan has become a net food importer. Therefore, along with the current production system, we must adopt measures to increase productivity. The substantial shortage of agricultural production can be filled by turning our arid lands into fertile ones.

Drought, deforestation and intensive farming methods turn an area half the size of Great Britain into desert every year. According to the United Nations, by 2030, 135 million people could lose their homes and livelihoods to desertification.

Pakistan has enormous agricultural potential. It is a fundamentally agricultural country. Nearly two-thirds of its population depend on agriculture-related activities. However, as the UNDP reports, 80% of Pakistan’s land area is arid or semi-arid land. These lands are vulnerable to desertification – a process by which farmland degrades into desert due to drought, deforestation, primitive and inappropriate agricultural practices, climate change, or a combination of these factors.

According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, about 1.46 million hectares of land in Punjab in 2019-2020 was classified as cultivable wasteland. The land is suitable for cultivation but is not cultivated for many reasons, such as waterlogging and salinity, electricity, technology and resource constraints or insufficient capital. One of the main catalysts for the poor development of these lands is the lack of a value creation paradigm coupled with a lack of vision.

According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, about 1.46 million hectares of land in Punjab in 2019-2020 was classified as cultivable wasteland. The land is suitable for cultivation but is not cultivated for many reasons, such as waterlogging and salinity, electricity, technology and resource constraints or insufficient capital. One of the main catalysts for the poor development of these lands is the lack of a value creation paradigm coupled with a lack of vision.

We have vast arid areas in South Punjab: Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Bhakkar, Khushab, Layyah. We also have wastelands in Baluchistan and Sindh resulting from relatively marginalized water pumping systems, water scarcity or brackish water.

Studies have shown that there are belts of land in these areas where freshwater aquifers exist. We have not irrigated these belts because the local communities are unaware of the availability of these aquifers. In some cases, the high cost of drilling and limited access to energy resources make it impossible for smallholder farmers to operate at an efficient scale.

These farmers have myopic vision. They are trapped in a vicious circle of devastation. They are neither able to cultivate nor find a source of water for irrigation. Once these lands become fertile, they will be able to provide a cohesive ecosystem for the soil to sustain and grow.

Countries around the world are finding ways to harness the untapped potential of drylands. China is constantly turning its deserts into green lands. Mu Us Desert, one of China’s four major deserts which covers an area of ​​42,200 square kilometers, was undergoing desertification but disappeared from the map as 93% of the land turned green.

Saline and alkaline tolerant crops are also changing the dynamics of agriculture in deserts like Dubai. From drip irrigation to harder seeds, innovations in water-stressed agriculture are increasing the efficiency of farming in drylands. Farmers in the United Arab Emirates have started using a Norwegian technology of mixing nano-clay with water and binding them to sand particles to condition desert soil for growing food in deserts.

How are we going to transform Pakistan’s drylands to harness their potential? How does a barren piece of land provide a flow of opportunity to stakeholders – large landowners, small farmers and investors?

Government and the corporate sector should come forward and form public-private partnerships to achieve sustainable growth. The government should redouble its efforts to institutionalize awareness and vocational training centers in Pakistan to promote agricultural education. It must develop programs not only to accelerate pilot projects to maturity level, but also to enable students and entrepreneurs to integrate IT tools and harness technical skills for smart agriculture.

Data by district from GPS mapping of aquifers with exact GPS coordinates should be made available to farmers. Areas with potential for agricultural land development should be identified. The risk factor should be reduced by the government by incentivizing small farmers and encouraging IT students to adopt smart farming.

The corporate sector can help halt desertification and turn large swaths of arid regions in Punjab and elsewhere in the country into farmland.

It may seem like a daunting task, but it’s not impossible. Others in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world have done so to stimulate long-term growth through the corporate sector. The corporate sector can ensure greater efficiency on the ground by introducing better skills in agricultural management, dissemination of information, availability of capital with a long-term vision and effective execution.

Together, these partnership-driven solutions can create tremendous opportunity for all stakeholders. Experts can help farmers customize their solutions to get the right fertilization, crop selection and agroforestry. With the right tools, the arid land can benefit from continuous research and development and demand-driven production to meet the supply shortage. It can create larger markets for farmers, improve international trade flows, and create sustainable solutions to support long-term agricultural development.

Drylands can create investment wonders that alleviate climate crisis, food insecurity and improve economic opportunity. Agriculture is the way to improve farmers’ livelihoods, create jobs and generate profits for investors.


The author is founder and CEO of Enrichers Investment Group with a strong interest in agricultural development


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