QUETTA, Pakistan, March 13 (UPI Next) -- Drought and power shortages have decimated agriculture in parts of Pakistan's largest province, Balochistan, and driven local villagers to Quetta, the provincial capital.
Gulistan, a town on Balochistan's dusty border with Afghanistan, is one such place. For decades, trees and vines bore apples, grapes, pomegranates and peaches that were sold in markets across Pakistan and abroad, yielding Gulistan's residents comfortable lives.
Now, years of drought caused by climate change that have dried up channels that used to bring water from the mountains, electricity shortages resulting from Pakistan's insufficient national power grid and militant attacks, and water storage scarcity stemming from inadequate dam construction have forced villagers from Gulistan to abandon their homes and orchards. Dead tree trunks along the road are all that remain of the lush fruit groves that once defined the town.
"Twenty years of drought and attacks by separatist militants on electricity grid lines have destroyed our crops and orchards at a cost we estimate at billions of rupees," Haji Abdul Rehman Bazai, secretary-general of the Balochistan Landowners Association, told UPI Next.
"The land I own was capable of providing 200 [220-pound] bags of wheat, enough cumin, vegetables, apples, grapes, pomegranates, melons and watermelons," Haji Muhammad Essa Khan, a landowner from Gulistan's Qilla Abdullah district, told UPI Next.
"My yields have decreased by 80 percent per year since 2008 owing to long hours of electricity outages when militants started blowing up the power grid. Last year, I used 1.4 million rupees [about $13,000] worth of diesel just to protect the grapevines and apple and pomegranate trees," he said
Before the drought, there were 3,325 ancient watering channels, Bazai told UPI Next.
"We used watering channels for irrigation. Underground tunnels were constructed to gather subsoil water, by gravity, at the foothills. This water was then either taken to the fields and villages through vertical shafts sunk underground, or it was drawn out at the foot of the hill where it was gathered," Bazai said.
These channels --'Karez' in the local Pashto -- used to bring water from nearby snow-clad mountains. However, drought has dried up 95 percent of these watering channels, Faiz Kakar, program manager at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said.
He said the channels were initially used for drinking water and were used for farming purposes in some areas.
"They have dried up. Now our agriculture depends 99 percent on tube wells." Kakar told UPI Next. Bazai said 30,660 holes were drilled by farmers, landowners, peasants and the provincial Agriculture Department.
"More than 22,000 tube wells are registered with the government and the rest of them are illegally dug due to no enforcement from the government," Kakar said.
"Due to power cuts from attacks and load-shedding, [electrically powered] tube wells cannot run and the excessive number of tube wells has caused disturbance in the underground water table. Many of these tube wells have dried up," Muhammad Dauran Khan, an assistant director in the Balochistan provincial Irrigation and Power Department, told UPI Next. "When an area with capacity to support 10 tube wells ends up with 50 tube wells, I am sure 40 of them will not function and the remaining 10 tube wells will function poorly."
In addition, Baloch militants attack the electricity lines during the summer months when temperatures can top 120 degrees. Since 2008, there have been 132 attacks on electricity lines cutting the power in the main season when trees and vegetables need more water.
"Sometimes a single attack by militants causes 28 days' delay in reconnecting the power lines," Haji Abdul Rahman Bazai, secretary-general of the Balochistan Landowners Action Committee, told UPI Next.
"The misfortune of agricultural communities started some 50 years ago, when our natural watering system started to dry gradually. Only a fraction of the natural water channels remain in Panjgoor district," Bazai said, referring to a district in western Balochistan that relies heavily on agriculture.
The drought and attacks on electricity lines have so far killed off 4.5 million fruit trees, more than 60 percent of the region’s total, Bazai estimated.
In some areas of the province, people have installed diesel and gasoline turbines, but they cost too much, he said. Electricity rates are subsidized so farmers and landowners can get greater yield from their crops and fields, Bazai added.
"Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran came under the phase of drought during last two decades," he said. "The destruction caused by drought is very high if measured collectively. On the Pakistani side, the volatile province of Balochistan risks losing its agriculture in the near future."
A decade-long insurgency by armed Baloch groups seeking autonomy from Islamabad expanded after government forces assassinated Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Muhammad Akber Khan Bugti in 2006.
One of the militants' tactics is attacking electricity supply lines. The Baloch Republican Army, a militant organization seeking Balochistan's independence, claims responsibility on its website for most of the attacks on power lines.
"Many factors affect our agriculture. These include climate change, power cuts, low water table, the absence of scientific techniques for cultivating our crops and water shortages," Nanak Khan Musakhel, assistant professor and agronomy specialist at Balochistan Agricultural College in Quetta, told UPI Next. "The cutoff of transmission power channels has hardened times for agriculture to exist in our province. Militants target the lines deliberately on hot days when trees need plenty of water, causing millions of trees to dry up because apple orchards need regular water supply.
"In summer, under relentless sunshine, just two weeks without rain ruins the apple trees' capacity to bear fruit. If the apple orchards go without water for long, they will surely die."
Muhammad Dauran Khan, an assistant director in the Balochistan provincial Irrigation and Power Department, said the province's natural resources were limited.
"Our limited resources should be used in accordance with our needs. Our people in Balochistan have dug thousands of holes in their search for water. Those holes watered their fields for years, but caused disturbance in the underground water table. In addition to this, our government lacks the appropriate planning to store annual rain water in dams," Dauran Khan told UPI Next.