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[ISLAMABAD] Uninterrupted energy and power supplies are critical farming inputs and their denial can affect efforts to meet the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) to reduce poverty and food insecurity, says a new study by a team of Mexican and Pakistani researchers.

Published this month (August) in Utilities Policy, the study is based on 2014 data collected from 950 farming households in Pakistan’s four main agro-ecological zones where cotton, wheat and rice, or a mix of these crops, are grown.

“Disruption in energy supply to the farm sector can hold back efforts to achieve poverty, hunger, health and education and energy-related SDGs in the rural farming areas”

Akhter Ali, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center

The Pakistan study follows an FAO report, released in July, that pointed to farmers in developing countries facing disproportionate challenges in accessing critical inputs and services, seriously affecting crop productivity and incomes.  

Energy, now recognised as a major input in modern farming, is needed at all stages of agricultural production — to power farm machinery, water management, irrigation, harvest and post-harvest activities and for food processing, storage and transportation of produce to markets.

“Disruption in energy supply to the farm sector can hold back efforts to achieve poverty, hunger, health and education and energy-related SDGs  in the rural farming areas,” Akhter Ali, corresponding author of the study and agricultural economist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Islamabad, tells SciDev.Net.

Overall household income is 13–20 per cent lower for farmers affected by the energy crisis compared to those who suffer no power outages, according to the study. Yields in kilograms per hectare went down for wheat (46-62 kilograms), rice (51-67 kilograms) and maize (53-117 kilograms) in areas affected by power outages during 2014.   

Sugarcane and cotton, Pakistan’s main cash crops, were also significantly affected by the energy disruptions, according to the study.

“Because wheat and rice are major cereal crops and vital to rural household sustenance and overall national food security, any decline in their yield has direct impact. Maize yields are central for industrial uses, especially poultry feed and edible corn oil production,” Akhter Ali tells SciDev.Net.

Khalid Mahmood Chaudhry, associate professor at the Institute of Agricultural Extension and Rural Development,  says energy shortages can adversely affect living, lifestyle, nutrition, health, education and employment-related SDGs for agriculture-dependent rural communities.

“Increasing rural communities’ dependence on clean, reliable and sustainable energy sources away from fossil fuels sources is key for agricultural sustainability and rural growth,” Chaudhry tells SciDev.Net.

Baqer Raza, director-general of the Pakistan Council of Renewable Energy Technologies, says the use of solar-powered irrigation systems, solar tube wells, wind pumps, solar dryers and water wheels for processing agricultural products could help bridge the energy gap in rural areas where 65 per cent of people lack access to power supplies.

Pakistan can generate 2.9 million megawatts from solar, 340,000 megawatts from wind and 100,000 megawatts from hydropower, according to officials at the government-owned Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB). “But the potential remains unharnessed due to paucity of funds and lack of political will,” says Sajjad Ahmed, former chief executive officer of AEDB.

Amjad Hussain Sial, secretary general of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Energy Centre, tells SciDev.Net that “introducing alternative models such as renewable energy-based off-grid and distributed generation solutions, such as  1—5 megawatt off-grid village or community-based solar and wind systems, can significantly help mitigate rural energy woes in South Asia”.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.