PESHAWAR   -   Unusual and untimely rains coupled with hail storms during the season from February to May this year destroyed the peach laden orchards. 

For Khaista Khan, an agriculturist and father of seven children, untimely and erratic rains not only destroyed his peach laden orchards in the scenic Swat valley, but also shattered dreams to marry his elder daughter from earnings he had anticipated from current season’s produce.

“Untimely rains coupled with hail storms during the season from February to May completely destroyed the orchards I had obtained on lease basis, depriving me of all my investment and income,” narrates Khaista.

“Cultivators are always mindful of losses to crops due to calamities and diseases, but enormous devastation destroying the whole produce is unexpected even for those associated with the practice from generations,” Khaista said in a choked voice.  Peach (Prunus persica) is the second important stone fruit in Pakistan after plum and is considered as most favourite after mango because of its sweetness, juiciness, fleshiness, attractive flavour and aroma.

“Located at an average elevation of 980 meters in mountainous Malakand division, an offshoot of Hindukush region, Swat valley produces majority of temperate season fruits including peach,” says Dr Muhammad Ayaz, Director Agriculture Research Institute Swat.

“Colorful peach produced in Swat accounts for 80 percent of peach production of the country,” claims Dr Ayaz. Apart from peach, Swat is also famous for growing apples, plum and persimmon. Because of verdant alpine meadows and snow-capped mountains, Swat’s economy is mostly dependent on tourism, constituting 38 percent, and 31 percent on agriculture produce.

In Swat, 70 percent population out of the total 2.4 million is associated with farming and current year’s weather changes have badly impacted livelihood of about one million cultivators, disclosed Dr Ayaz.

“Harvest and supply of `Swat peaches’ starts in May and continues till September because of the diverse range of varieties grown,” says Adalat Khan, a Phd on `Peach Value Chain’ from Agriculture University Peshawar. 

A total of eight varieties of peaches are produced in Swat and the early season fruit fetches the highest profit to growers due to its attractive taste, Adalat said. In tropical regions, only a couple of varieties of peach can be grown while the majority of varieties of the fruit can only be obtained from temperate regions.“Inclement downpour and hailstorms during the months of March to June 2020 in Swat, standing crops ready for harvest on 20,000 hectares and fruit orchards on 15000 hectares have been severely damaged,” estimates Khpal Kaliwala Tanzeem (Our Villagers’ Organization), a representative body of Swat farmers. Strong wind storms and torrential rains in Babuzai, Barikot, Kabal and Matta tehsils of Swat district have damaged 40 percent of wheat crop and 60 percent of fruit orchards, reads preliminary survey report of Khpal Kaliwala Organization.

“Farmers in Malakand were suffering losses due to climate change related calamities for the last several years, but this year’s loss is disastrous,” explains Fazal Maula, head of Khpal Kaliwala Tanzeem. Apart from growers, thousands of labourers also suffered due to damage to crops and fruits because of climate change. “Usually I employ 60 to 70 labourer at my orchards, but this year I have to lay off the majority of workers,” said Abdul Haq, a grower from Charbagh area of Swat district. “Current year was worse in my 15 years career because the income was very nominal,” said Shakhi Jan, a labourer who belongs to Charsadda district and regularly goes to Swat for work in peach orchards.

Shakhi Jan said that he usually earned Rs.80,000 to Rs.100,000 on  seasonal basis, but this year’s income was much lower, restricting him to celebrate Eid-ul-Azha along with his family. The Meteorological Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa validates unseasonal rains in Swat, indicating 106mm more rain in initial months of 2020 than the rain received in 2019.

In 2020, Swat received 534.2mm of rain in March, April and May as compared to 227.5mm of rain received during the same months in 2019. Data also shows that during these three months which are more important for peach season, the rain was in excess from average downpour percentage for the last 30 years, showing an increase of 57mm in March, 72mm in April and 59mm in May. “Increase in rain in Swat is because of changes in climate and also due to changes in intensity of sun heat and rays, altering weather and downpour timing,” comments Mushtaq Shah, Director MET Department KP.

“Global climatic conditions keep on changing on an annual basis as a result of which timing and quantity of rain also changes,” Mushtaq added.

“Apart from rains, severe hail storms also wreaked enormous damage on orchards,” opined Iftikhar Ahmad, Agriculture Officer Matta Swat.

Untimely rains during flowering season also caused an attack by `Brown Rot’ fungus during blossoming. “Every year I dispatch around 2.5 million cartons of 8kg of peach to different parts of the country, but this season have only sent half a million,” said Aman-e-Rome Bacha, Swat’s top dealer of fruit and vegetable.