Monsoon season isn’t over yet in Pakistan — after three weeks of heavy rains and disastrous floods, the flood warnings are still coming in, threatening further chaos in a nation that is already in way over its head. To date, over 82,000 miles have been affected, killing at least 1600 people, destroying an estimated 723,000 homes and 1.4 million acres of farmland. The economic loss in crops — primarily sugar, wheat, rice, cotton and vegetables — is estimated at this point to be around $1 billion. And that’s a number that many expect will grow when the flood waters finally recede and farmers begin to figure out when, exactly, they can start planting again.
Knowing the answer to that can’t come too soon. Many of the some 20 million affected by the floods are subsistence farmers who live off their land. They have lost stored crops, seed supplies and standing crops just weeks before the winter planting of both wheat and the short planting season for rice normally begins. Now, given the potential damage to irrigation systems and soil, no one knows if the early autumn planting will be possible. “For poor farmers, wheat is the mainstay of their diet,” says David Doolan, a senior Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) officer in Pakistan. “If they don’t have a crop next year, they will be facing severe food security. Their livelihoods are underwater at the moment.”
Much of the country hit by the floods lies along the Indus River. Upstream, significant damage to infrastructure, erosion and irrigation systems is expected to be found once the water clears; downstream, Doolan says there may be large deposits of silt from the river on land that will have to be drained and, effectively, rebuilt before it can be seeded. Right now, FAO is working to assess the extent of the land rehabilitation that will have to be done, what kind and how many seeds will be needed and where, and what stocks the country already has. FAO’s next step will be distributing starter kits of seeds and basic tools to farmers who have lost everything. “While our colleagues are saving lives, we’re trying to lay the foundations to rebuild people’s lives,” says Doolan. “The objective for most people is to remain independent.”
The flood’s damage to Pakistan’s food exports – and any potential ripple effect on food prices in world markets – is also unknown. Abdolreza Abbassian, an FAO economist, expects that the nation’s lofty goal of exporting 2 million tons of wheat will not be met, even if it could be. “Given the need inside the country, it could be politically not correct to ship the wheat out,” Abbassian says, adding that, unlike the current wheat shortage in Russia after that country’s wildfires, he does not expect any shortage from Pakistan to influence wheat prices. Rice, on the other hand, could be a problem: Pakistan supplies 10% of the world’s rice trade, and a severe shortage could potentially upset markets if the coming year’s planting is severely disturbed. “Anything that is bad news gets amplified, and Pakistan is no exception,” says Abbassian. But, he adds, the real concern is “not what will happen to the world market, but what will happen to Pakistan… When the water recedes, will the farmers go back and farm?”
Before the future of food security can be assessed, people need to eat now. The World Food Programme (WFP) is scrambling to distribute one-month rations of wheat, cooking oil, and fortified biscuits to as many families as it can, but that effort, like so much else in Pakistan at the moment, has been hampered by the continuing bad weather. “We have helicopters available, but that’s been frustrating because on same days we just haven’t been able to fly,” says Marcus Prior, a WFP spokesperson in Islamabad. He says some people have trekked for days to reach WFP’s food distribution points. The organization has asked for $164 million to cover distribution for the next three months; so far, it’s received $32 million. (Read more about the economic impact of the floods and the aid Pakistan is receiving in my colleague Omar Waraich’s report from Shikarpur.)
For those of us who are not in Pakistan, the images we see — angry brown water tearing through towns, people, chest deep, carrying what little they could grab from their homes — are are the only tool we have to try to grasp the magnitude of what’s happening, let alone the magnitude of what’s still to come. Unfortunately, between natural disasters and refugee crises, starting all over again with nothing is something that all too many Pakistanis have had to do. “You can appreciate that Pakistan has suffered a lot of external shocks over the last five years,” Doolan says. “That would test anybody’s resilience, but people in Pakistan are very quick to rebuild their livelihoods.” That may be, but let’s hope the world won’t leave Pakistanis to face the aftermath of the largest humanitarian disaster in recent history alone.