Contemporary Issues & Challenges
Irretrievable Loss of Prime Agricultural Land - Is It Worrisome
Pakistan is basically an agrarian Country. Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for sixty six percent of the Country's population living in rural areas, and it directly or indirectly constitutes sixty seven percent of Pakistan's foreign exchange earnings. Agriculture sector employs more than forty three percent of the total work force and accounts for nearly twenty one percent of the national GDP (Minfal, GoP : Year Book 2006-2007).
The entire agricultural system of a nation depends upon the productivity potential of its Land Resource defined as an area of the earth's surface together with its immediate ambience above and below (FAO : A Framework for Land Evaluation - Soils Bulletin No. 32; 1976). It thus includes, at any one location, the atmosphere, the soil and the underlying strata, the topography, the climate, the hydrology, the flora and the fauna, as well as the infrastructure etc, to the extent that these attributes influence the use of that piece of land. Sustainability of the agricultural system's productivity is essentially dependent upon appropriate utilization and management of the aforesaid land resource complex. It must be utilized to derive greatest sustainable benefits; sustainability implies living on the interest from the natural capital rather than on the capital itself.
Land is a finite and non-renewable asset. S.L. Timpson of UNDP observes (Guide Book on the Preparation of a Sustainable Plan; Govt, of Philippines; 1997) that as population growth continues, greater demand for land and its natural resources creates competition and conflicts. Urban population is growing world wide at four times the rate in the case of rural population. Associated with urbanization are rapid industrialization and the need for transportation infrastructure, green spaces, waste disposal sites etc. Because of the fact that cities were often established on some of the agriculturally most productive lands, urban expansion is most likely to consume more of the prime agricultural land causing a highly serious setback to agricultural production capability.
Pakistan extends over a land area of 868,592 sq.km (Survey of Pakistan: Atlas of Pakistan, Second Edition; 1997). Investigation and mapping of land resources all over the Country has been carried out by the Soil Survey of Pakistan and the findings published in the form of
bulletins, reports and maps at different scales. As shown by the 'Soil Types of Pakistan' map
(Soil Survey of Pakistan; 2007), more than half of the Country covering its north and
west comprises mountainous territory dominated by high steep ridges mainly suitable for forestry/range development etc. Therein, areas having potential for arable cropping are mostly confined to lower/gentler mountain slopes/valley floors/basins, occurring under a semiarid or a moister climate. Broad valleys/plains etc present in an arid/hyper arid environment mostly have little moisture, limiting economic or extensive crop production.
Furthermore, about one-eighth of the Country is constituted of predominantly non-agricultural areas comprising Dune land, Glaciers/Snow, Gullied land, Playas, Rough broken/Rock land, Sea creeks, Stream courses, Urban land and Water bodies/Wet land.
Main bulk of the land suitable for year round, intensive, economic, diversified agriculture
occurs in the Indus Plains - the low, flat territory bounded on the north by the Himalayan foot
hills and the Salt Range, and on the west by the series of mountains extending from the Trans
Indus and Sulaiman ranges through the Marri - Bugti hills to the Brahui & Kirthar ranges.
These plains covering about a third of the land surface of Pakistan are endowed with large tracts having favourable soils, water, climate and other essential attributes required for arable crop production. Irrigated agriculture here provides most of the food, feed and fiber produced in the Country providing sustenance to the population as well as to the national economy. Prudence demands judicious use and management of this resource consonant with its nature and potential to ensure conservation of the resource, sustainability of its productivity and protection of the environment.
Land is not the same every where. As can be anticipated, the land resource is spatially variable in terms of its various attributes hence in its suitability for different kinds of use. Comprehensive study of land resources of the Country in accordance with the internationally recognized standards has revealed that the Indus Plains (324,000 km ) with the exception of the parts comprising the sandy deserts - Cholistan, Thai & Thar, and the tidal plain bordering on the Arabian Ocean, are generally very well suited to extensive irrigated agriculture. The cultivable part accounting for almost seven tenth (223,000 kmz : 69%) of these Plains is dominated by good and very good agricultural lands potentially suited to a very highly productive arable crop production (Soil Survey of Pakistan: Land Resource in the Irrigated Plains of Pakistan - Pakistan Soils Bulletin No. 13; 1980). This prime agricultural land is one of our most precious, non-renewable natural wealth which must be properly understood, appropriately utilized and scientifically managed to ensure our economic well being, its conservation/improvement, and environmental protection.
Pakistan does not have an adequately vast land area with respect to its fast multiplying human population. Among 148 countries of the world ranked into 55 groups based upon 1999-2001 situation in respect of their land resource wealth, Pakistan falls far below-in the 51sl group-huddled together with ten other countries including Burundi, Congo, Eritrea, Rwanda, Yemen etc (WWF : Living Planet Report ; 2002). Gross value of its land per capita stands at approximately 0.5 hectares which is further declining. Compared with the world wide average of nearly two hectares per capita of biologically productive area cited in the aforesaid report, it is very low. This meagre quantity too is at stake threatened by unscrupulous uses resulting in permanent loss for agricultural utilization.
Our prime agricultural land, in the Indus Plains, covers an area of about 165,000 sq km, constituting a little less than one-fifth (19%) of the Country's geographic extent. It has no or only slight limitation for arable use and little effort is required to produce high yields of a wide range of crops; it responds best to good management and gives highest returns on inputs of water, fertilizer and quality seed. Considerable proportion of this kind of land has already been irretrievably lost due to expansion of cities, siting of industrial estates, construction of mega airports, motorways, and city bypasses infested by mushrooming settlements and service areas, quarrying of upper earth comprising good quality soil, use as land fills for waste disposal and dumping of hazardous refuse, and lastly, spilling over of rural habitation onto the croplands.
As an example of permanent non-agricultural use of arable land of high productive potential, the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway may be taken to study its multifaceted impact on the established agricultural enterprise. Out of its total length of 367 km, a stretch of 215 km from Lahore to the Jhelum River runs mostly over the canal irrigated plains. With a swath of 70 m width, the aforesaid portion has consumed more than 1,500 ha (15 sq.km; 3,720 acres) of croplands, about three fourth of which comprises good and very good agricultural lands (Pakistan Soils Bulletin No. 13). Based upon a consideration of the average farm household in Punjab (GoP : Agricultural Census of Pakistan; 2000) as an entity in terms of holding size, cropping pattern and intensity, labour employment and crop yields, it has been estimated that this land going out of agricultural use has presumably resulted in:
ÂÂ¡ Displacement of 516 farm households comprising 3,560 members
ÂÂ¡ Unemployment of 2,322 labour heads (family + hired)
ÂÂ¡ Likelihood of migration of at least a part of the displaced population to urban areas, with consequent
ÂÂ¡ Swelling up of slums afflicted with severe environmental hazards and low quality of life.
In addition to the socio-economic problems highlighted above, there has been a net annual loss to the national GDP equivalent to:
2,665 tons 957 " 435 " 153 "
ever since the area went out of cultivation.
These are quite generalized estimates based upon simplified assumptions in respect of prevalent situation in the canal commanded plains of Punjab. They are, however, a fair indicator of the social as well as economic impacts of the agricultural lands going permanently out of cultivation in the studied example which involves only a fraction of the large scale consumption of such lands in the Indus Plains by uncontrolled expansion of major cities, industrial estates and the allied infrastructure cited above.
The situation calls for immediate action to forestall further misuse and loss of the valuable agricultural lands. Systematic land use planning is the key to optimum land utilization which ensures that land is devoted to its most suitable use. The planning process must incorporate environmental considerations to assure consistency of the development with sound environmental management for the benefit of the present as well as the coming generations.
Precise magnitude of the problem needs to be determined and its effects on economy, population as well as environment have to be identified and quantified. Most of the requisite knowledge relating to the resource itself is available to provide basis for the sound land use planning. The plan should clearly pinpoint areas suitable for various kinds of agricultural as well as non-agricultural land uses such as urban / industrial settlements, communication infrastructure, metro airports, quarrying of earth and other building material etc. The plan should have the support of appropriate legislation as well as effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.