Cotton Farmers in India and Pakistan Bear the Brunt of Extreme Heat, Unpredictable Rainfall

Farmers have been growing cotton in India and Pakistan for thousands of years. But that shared history and benefit is under threat because of weather volatility.

The year 2022 will remain etched in the memory of Anantha Kumar Pichaipillai, a cotton farmer from Tamil Nadu. For the first time in eight years, he did not grow cotton.

Extreme rainfall in January 2021 wreaked havoc on his cotton farm.

“This has been unseen for 100 years,” he said. “January is a month of minimal rain. That has changed since 2021. Because of this, nearly 70 farmers abandoned growing cotton [on their farms].”

India received 10 times more rainfall than usual in January 2021, according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).

That deluge was a preview of what Pakistan faced in August 2022, when torrential rains damaged 80% of the cotton crop in the Sindh province, and killed at least 1,700 people, and caused a damage of around $15 billion.

In September last year, the Pakistan Cotton Ginners Association said that the nation might have to import 3.1 million bales of cotton, at a cost of over $1.2 billion, to bridge the production gap during the fiscal year 2023.

While too much rain can be devastating, so can dry conditions at the wrong time.

“Cotton is grown in dry weather conditions and benefits from the monsoon. The recent phenomenon of extreme heat and the extreme downpour is disrupting the situation,” said Y.E.A. Raj, former deputy director general at IMD. He also warned against judging climate in the short-term and suggested observing the climate data for the next decade before understanding patterns that are hitting cotton production.

The farmers of central Punjab in Pakistan have stopped cultivating cotton for nearly five years due to erratic rainfall, said Abid Hussain, senior economist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a Kathmandu-based research group that focuses on Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.

“Farmers cannot depend on it anymore,” he said.

A common thread

Farmers have been growing cotton in India and Pakistan for thousands of years.

The countries’ economies are thriving because they have been part of the top 10 cotton exporters along with the US, China, and Brazil. India contributes a little over 26% of the global cotton production and supports the livelihoods of nearly 60 million people.

The cotton industry makes up almost half of Pakistan’s manufacturing base. The cotton textile sectors account for 11% of Pakistan’s gross domestic product (GDP).

But that shared history and benefit is under threat because of weather volatility.

Also read: Drought and Sudden Rain Lead to Catastrophic Losses Among Paddy Farmers in Kashmir Valley

Lower yield

Vikram Patil-Gaikwad is a cotton grower from Ashwi Khurd village, which falls under Sangamner taluka in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra.

He has grown four to six acres of cotton under drip irrigation for the last five years. He thinks cotton production will decrease this year due to continuous rain and cloudy weather.

“Earlier, I had produced a record cotton yield of 22 to 23 quintals (one quintal is equal to 100 kilograms) per acre,” he said. “This year, however, I am expecting to produce eight to 10 quintals per acre, due to continuous cloudy weather and the spread of fungal diseases.”

Fertilisers have been washed away by the rains.

Meanwhile, the demand for cotton from China and Bangladesh is expected to be high this year. So, it won’t be a surprise if the prices go up to Rs 10,000 per quintal or more in the domestic market. But as the production is going down, the opportunity to make a lot of profit is also being lost.

“An estimated 3.5 million bales of cotton were destroyed by the floods in Sindh,” said Mahmood Nawaz Shah, president of the Sindh Abadgar Board in Pakistan. “A few months back, the cultivation area shrunk by 0.4 million acres due to scarcity of water.”

Kishore Patil, a cotton grower from Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh, said, “I have been cultivating Bt cotton for 10-12 years. When there is less rain, the yield is good. We planted cotton in May. But the rains were less during the period of flowering and budding of the crop. Now rains have come when the harvesting has started.”

This will reduce the yield as the rains are continuing. The average production per acre is expected to be 10 quintals. If the weather is good, it may go up to 15 quintals per acre.

Due to low cotton production, the prices are good this year. The price per quintal has gone up to Rs 8,100. It may even go up to Rs 10,000. So the yield is expected to be Rs 78,000 per acre.

Also read: Rising Farmer Suicides Leaves Families Adrift as Vidarbha Grapples With Multiple Crises

Changing crops

Some farmers are switching to other crops because they can no longer count on cotton.

Ganesan, an Indian farmer, has given up cotton after six years due to the unpredictable climate.

“I don’t know what climate change looks like in other parts of the world. For me, it is the alternating extreme heat and extreme rainfall. Cotton cannot handle it. I switched to maize this year,” he said. Maize can withstand some of the extreme weather conditions in his locality.

Another option is rice, which benefits from inundation, according to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. The organisation talked with farmers in the Punjab region that converted nine acres of cotton to paddy in 2011 after the flooding in 2010.

More study is needed to help farmers learn the best ways to adapt.

K. Rathinavel, a scientist at the Central Cotton Research Institute in India, said that these instances of climate’s impact on cotton have been observed and studied by researchers for many years. “It may take a few years for the researchers to respond to such situations. In the long-term, a mitigation plan will be a reality,” he said.

Sukrut Karandikar is an assistant editor at The Focus India in Pune; Ghulam Mustafa is news director at KTN News (Kashish Television Network) in Karachi; Peer Mohamed Azees is founder and CEO of Ippodhu Digital Media Private Limited in Chennai; and Alina Tariq is a reporter with the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation in Islamabad.

This report is part of a week-long cross-border reporting workshop held in Kathmandu, Nepal, organised by the US based East-West Center.

Edited by Taniya Roy.