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EDITORIAL: News that fears of much of the standing cotton crop being washed away by heavy rains are coming true in Punjab and Sindh, especially the latter, must have rattled a number of ministries in Islamabad.

The agriculture ministry would already be drawing up estimates of damage done to farmers and their livelihoods, and how much it would impact the sector once the season passes.

The commerce ministry would need to know the exact shortfall very soon so it can go about finding markets and making orders for an extraordinary, and unexpected consignment that will surely upset overall import estimates for the ongoing fiscal.

And the finance ministry would have to arrange necessary funds; meaning it would have to find a less desperate sector to divert money from, given the tight fiscal situation. That is why the official estimate so far of 10-50 percent damage done presents too wide a spread to know what exactly to do.

Export businesses, especially the textile sector, must be holding their breath as well. Cotton feeds into textile which makes up 60 percent of the precious export basket, after all, and these are already times when the import-dependent nature of a number of crucial exports is fast making them untenable. Now if cotton, too, will burn a lot of dollars to earn desperately needed foreign exchange, then sooner or later this sector will also fall on itself. Worse still, there’s no telling when the real extent of the damage will be known. Almost 95 percent of the crop is in the fields at the moment.

And it cannot survive for more than 24 hours if submerged in one foot of water, whereas it’s been raining non-stop for more than two days in Sindh and much of the crop has already been under-water all this time. So there’s a good chance that whatever confirmation comes will be received very badly in Islamabad.

Now, even if the government is able to scrape enough to get the cotton it needs, which it will have to, and textile exporters manage to dodge this particular bullet, what is to become of the farmers who’ve been ruined all over again? How much more funds will now have to be diverted to them so they can make it through to next year? And what’s going to happen to the trade balance if we spend top dollar for last-minute cotton and still fall short of our needs?

This crisis has exposed a number of things, not the least how central rains are to our crops. It was only at the start of this season that cotton plantation had to be delayed for lack of rainwater, forcing farmers to miss the sowing target by a wide margin, and now that compromised production is further cut back. Surely, at least some of this could have been foreseen.

It’s not impossible in this day and age to forecast weather patterns, and if such devastation was on the cards, why didn’t relevant departments and ministries mobilise in time instead of making a rush at the last minute? When your agri economy is stuck in the Middle Ages, even though it makes the lion’s share of the GDP and employment, besides having the highest number of households associated with it, then the least you can do is coordinate it effectively with all departments it regularly does business with.

Pakistan’s economy is just too vulnerable right now to digest too many such shocks. And failure to control the current account is the cancer at the centre of it. It says a lot that the trade balance bloated to its worst just when the textile sector made its best killing on record. Now, if the flagship exporter is also facing raw material problems that are traced to the weather’s impact on cotton output, then we are on very weak footing indeed.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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