Satellites and SMS help Pakistan’s farmers with smart irrigation

Using data from Nasa, Pakistan's water research agency is sending rain forecasts to 10,000 farmers, helping them to irrigate more efficiently and increase their crop yields
<p> تصویر بشکریہ عادل احمد</p>

تصویر بشکریہ عادل احمد

It is still beyond farmer Mohammad Ashraf’s comprehension that people in Islamabad can predict that it will rain in the next two days in his village. He is also astonished that, based on this prediction, they can tell him how much he should water his rice and sugarcane plantations.  

“I marvel at this science of being able to predict something that is unknown and in God’s hands,” says the 36-year-old farmer, Every Friday, he reads the simple Urdu messages sent to his phone, saying things like: “Dear farmer friend, this is to inform you that between 21 and 28 July 2017 in your area (Bahawalnagar) the crops used this much water (cotton 1.6 inch, sugarcane 1.7 inch). Next week, rain is predicted in some parts of your region. Therefore please water your crops accordingly.”

The text messages (or SMS) are sent by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), a government agency that carries out water research. Ashraf would be even more flabbergasted if he knew the scientists get this information from space.

“Using satellites and models that take the pulse of the earth, we can identify the amount of water a given crop requires at a specific location and a specific time,” says Faisal Hossain, head of the Sustainability, Satellites, Water, and Environment (SASWE) research group at the University of Washington which developed the programme for, “estimating crop water requirement in a cost effective and sustainable manner for the whole country”.

Ashraf, who lives in Hayatpur in Punjab’s Sargodha district, now takes these messages seriously.  Five years ago, he met water experts from the PCRWR who were doing a field survey to explore how to improve groundwater conservation and crop yield. During their surveys, the experts found that farmers were over-watering their crops. They installed a water meter on Ashraf’s 12-acre farm and explained that if the arrow turned towards the green on the dial, it meant that his land had enough water. When the arrow turned towards the red mark, it was time to water.

“Like every farmer in the village, I did not believe them. We have been farming for generations and know what works and what doesn’t,” Ashraf told thethirdpole.netBut the following year, he decided to only water his field when the marker pointed towards the red. That season he produced more, spent less on diesel to run the tubewell, and made more profit than anyone in the village. “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% of the time they are right on the mark about rain,” he says.  

image by: Adil Ahmed

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% 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% 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% up to 90% (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% 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% of irrigation needs are met by IBIS canals and 50% 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.

Read: Irrigation in Pakistan: Water theft drains Indus canal dry