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. 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 said. But 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 tube well, 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.”

Step by small step, the farmers of Pakistan may end up seeing cell phone technology as an essential part of a more productive future. Read More

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