By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio
RAWAT, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Like his farming neighbors, Bilal Khan plants wheat in late October or early November each year, and harvests and sells his winter crop a few months later.
But this year, there are no wheat stalks are to be seen on his 3 hectares (5 acres) of land in Rawat, a town some 12 miles (20 km) from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.
Instead, Khan is growing onions, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage and carrots.
In late October, the Pakistan Meteorological Department informed Khan and other farmers that no rain was forecast for the crucial wheat-growing months of November and December in parts of northern Pakistan that rely solely on rain-fed agriculture.
The warning was one of the first of its kind from Pakistan's weather service, aimed at helping farmers look ahead months, rather than just days, and plan for crops more likely to survive drought.
"As advised by the weatherman on the radio, I exercised caution and opted for vegetable cultivation, it being less water-intensive," Khan said. He is irrigating his crops with water drawn from a nearby pond.
Winter rains are usually reliable in this region – but already those who did not heed the weather forecast are regretting their decision, as they watch the wheat they planted fail.
Muhammad Khan spent $2,000 on wheat seed which he finished sowing on Nov. 7 on his family's 4-acre farm in Ghool, a village about 90 km southeast of Islamabad.
His nights have been sleepless since he noticed the seeds growing abnormally slowly.
The wheat plants were only 3 inches tall by Nov. 21, rather than the 12 inches he would have expected.
"Even if rains come in January and February, the wheat output would be less than 50 percent" of normal, because the grain heads will be underdeveloped, Khan predicted.
Slow growth makes the crop vulnerable in other ways too. Karaim Nawab, a wheat farmer in Gujar Khan, said if wheat doesn't grow strongly enough to properly grip the soil, the plants are at risk of being flattened if there are heavy winds later in the season.
Wheat is grown on around 9 million hectares (22 million acres) of land in Pakistan, 30 percent of which is rain-fed. Around 25 million tonnes of the crop are produced annually across the country. The Potohar plateau in the northeast, where Islamabad and its surrounding area are located, produces 3 million tonnes.
EL NINO INFLUENCE
Farmers usually finish sowing wheat by mid-November and, under normal circumstances, two rainy spells in November and December drench the fields, allowing the seeds to germinate. The harvest begins in April.
This year, things are different. Ghulam Rasul, director-general of the Meteorological Department, said the winter drought appears to be the result of an unusual high pressure zone over Central Asia that has driven rain clouds over northern Pakistan and beyond without letting rain fall.
Rasul says the drought is a consequence of the El Niño phenomenon, but that the effects are much harsher now than the last time the weather phenomenon affected Pakistan, in 2009. The most recent El Niño has also caused severe droughts in Africa and devastating floods in Asia-Pacific countries.
The winter drought comes on the heels of a monsoon that receded in early September, almost three weeks earlier than expected.
Apart from holding back the onset of winter rains across Pakistan, El Niño is also causing large fluctuations between day and night-time temperatures, Rasul added – another headache for farmers.
Muhammad Tariq, director of the state-owned Rain-fed Agriculture Research Institute in Chakwal, said wheat requires temperatures of 21 to 25 degrees Celsius for effective germination.
"This winter, during the peak wheat-sowing months of October and November, the temperature remained around 30 degrees," he said.
The unusually high temperatures have forced farmers to delay wheat sowing in Islamabad and its suburban areas such as Rawat, Gujar Khan, Taxila, Attock and Rawalpindi.
"Although drought-tolerant wheat varieties have been introduced in the rain-fed areas, these varieties also need water," Tariq said.
In Rawat, Bilal Khan is confident his vegetables will sell quickly when he takes them to market in February and March. He predicts he will make as much money as he would have from a wheat crop.
"The forecast has been a big help as it has saved my investment of almost $3,000 going down the drain had I cultivated wheat this time," he said.
(Reporting by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio, editing by Laurie Goering; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)