Mobile phones and satellites are becoming valuable farming tools in Pakistan.
A new program there uses satellite information to estimate how much water a field needs. The satellite then sends this information by text message to farmers’ mobile phones.
The program’s aim is to prevent the farmers from overwatering crops. A 2013 report from the Asian Development Bank says Pakistan has some of the most severe water problems in the world. The country’s water availability is similar to Syria’s, where a lack of rainfall has intensified civil war.
Pakistan is only able to store water that can last up to 30 days. That is far below the recommended storage amount of 1,000 days.
Several issues have led to Pakistan’s water crisis. They include climate changes, a growing population, local water mismanagement and a greater demand on farmers.
Many fear the water crisis could weaken relations between Pakistan and India. The two countries share the Indus River.
Many older Pakistani farmers received agricultural training several years ago, when water was more readily available. They know the risks that come with underwatering crops.
But using too much water can reduce crop harvests.
The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources found that rice farmers were using more than three times as much water as they needed.
The council asked the Sustainability, Satellites, Water, and Environment research group, at the University of Washington, to get involved. The council wanted the research group to use science to help inform irrigation choices.
Pakistan’s program started with 700 farmers in the spring of 2016. By January, 10,000 farmers were receiving text messages with a water amount advisory. For example, one message read: "Dear farmer friend, we would like to inform you that the irrigation need for your banana crop was 2 inches during the past week."
The messages come from a fully-automated system. It uses publicly available satellite information. It also uses models to compute how much water each farmer needs to irrigate.
The council plans to expand the program for use across the country, and expects millions of farmers to participate. But first the system must be reviewed.
The researchers want to know how easy it is for farmers to use, and how many follow the irrigation advisories. They also want to know how accurate it is and whether it saves farmers money.
They are collecting responses from farmers over the phone.
Faisal Hossain is with the University of Washington. He says he has not seen a report on the results yet. However, the group heard from one farmer in the program who said he was able to get about 700 kilograms more wheat than his neighbor. The farmer said he believes the irrigation advisories made this possible.
Expanding the program may be difficult. The council may need to work harder to persuade farmers to trust the technology. Those working on smaller farms may not feel comfortable depending on mobile phone technology.
Mobile phones are already very common in Pakistan, however. And last year the Punjab government announced that it would give out 5 million smartphones to farmers.
I’m Alice Bryant.