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For the first time in at least 20 years, cotton yield in Punjab has beaten crop yield achieved in Sindh. Is Punjab finally witnessing cotton revival? On the contrary, cotton has suffered a massive setback in the southern province. At 515 kg per hectares, Sindh’s yield during FY21 is lowest since 1994, and reminiscent of the pre-Bt. cotton days.

While district-wise data for FY21 is so far unavailable, statistics from the previous year serve as a tell-all. Between FY19 and FY20, crop yield across most of Sindh’s prime cotton acres in central and north-eastern parts of the province fell by nearly half. And that’s just the story of FY20, when province-wise yield stood at 780kg per hectare, about fifty percent higher than what it appears to have come down to during the outgoing fiscal year.

To understand the full extent of cotton’s mighty fall in Sindh it may help recall that the province had achieved record output of 3.8 million bales just three years ago. According to final estimates by Pakistan Central Cotton Committee, provincial output declined to 1.86 million bales by FY21. (Surprisingly, the private sector trade association – Pakistan Cotton Ginners’ Association – places its estimates slightly higher at 2.1 million bales. Although it claims that the official figures are overestimated by 25 percent on national level).

Either way, cotton’s slide in Sindh between FY20 and FY21 is even more significant as it has come at a time when water stress had largely subsided. Readers will recall that as lower riparian, Sindh’s cropping segment had been acutely affected during kharif 2019 (FY20) due to shortfall of irrigation water. Thus, as water availability improved during kharif 2020-21, the crop was expected to bounce back, yet the shocking yield outcome indicates saving the crop may not be as simple.

Unlike Punjab, Sindh’s cotton yield had remained largely unimpacted for better part of the last decade, in fact staying put on an upward trajectory. As falling cotton prices amid battered yield pushed growers in Punjab to other profitable crops, cotton area in the southern province remained mostly intact. Unlike Punjab’s farmers who have access to abundant groundwater, Sindh’s water stressed growers also didn’t have plenty of substitute crop choices.

Thus, both luck (with yield) and circumstances meant that cotton remained popular in traditional crop regions of the province. But going by the losses borne by Sindh’s cotton farmers over past two seasons, it is hard to fathom that the trend would continue.

Already, news reports indicate that area sown during the 2021-2022 kharif season has suffered, with progressive farmers insisting that acreage may fall short by 20 percent against target. This comes at a time when both domestic and international cotton prices are resurgent, having recently touched their 7-year high. Moreover, given the thriving return of textile exports, country’s cotton import requirements may exceed 5 million bales, a gap that could have partly been filled by Sindh’s cotton.

With less than two weeks to go before cotton sowing in the province comes to an end, it will take no less than a miracle to revive Sindh’s cotton acres. Lower water availability thus far may also push once-bitten farmers further to the side lines. Even if yield returns to past levels during harvest, a large number of Sindh’s growers will have already missed out on the cotton bonhomie.