Nearly 20 million people have been directly affected, most of whom are from the rural agricultural areas and depend on agriculture to meet their food and income needs. A great number of them have been uprooted from their lands, with their household assets, investments in farm tools and animals, and food stocks all destroyed by the floods.
Pakistan’s massive flood destroyed not only standing crops of the season but also vast proportions of arable land and capacities of numerous farmers to cultivate crops in the upcoming seasons. The consequences are far-reaching for an impoverished country that relies heavily on its agricultural productivity and employs two-thirds of its population in this sector.
Nearly 20 million people have been directly affected, most of whom are from the rural agricultural areas and depend on agriculture to meet their food and income needs. A great number of them have been uprooted from their lands, with their household assets, investments in farm tools and animals, and food stocks all destroyed by the floods. Submerged roads and fallen bridges have disconnected access to thousands to the rest of Pakistan. They all lack proper shelter, food, clean water, medicine and other basic needs. At least six million are at risk of waterborne diseases, 3.5 million of which are estimated to be children according to the UN. (See here)
However, if the situation is terribly bad now, the worst is yet to come.
With major crops damaged or destroyed over 3.6 million hectares of cultivated land, and with unpredictable amounts of food supplies coming from the unaffected regions, a famine-like food crisis is imminent in many parts of the country, which could be in full swing by the forthcoming spring when Pakistan’s current food stocks will start to run out. The shockwaves will be so far-reaching that even unaffected regions will not be spared.
The high density urban areas in particular that heavily depend on rural areas for their food supply will come under immense pressure. They will experience acute shortage and a steep rise in food prices and other daily supplies and services (as part of a contingent effect). The major cities were already hit by dramatic price increases in the last two months, probably artificially created by hoarders and retailers, but the food shortage and price hikes in the coming months will hit much harder and be more deadly for everyone, especially the internally displaced population.
Pakistan’s current foreign reserves are too thin to be able to bear a widespread food shortage. The inefficiency and corruption within the present government is evident to any discerning observer. The helpless conditions will force an even greater proportion of people from the flood-ravaged regions to move to major cities and other unaffected areas.
Poverty and hunger will push people from among the homeless, poor and working class to form local supportive networks. But desperate circumstances could also force some to sell all their assets, beg on the streets, commit suicide or engage in petty crimes to feed themselves. Sadly, local news reports are already indicating an increasing number of such incidents.
The regions with high concentrations of internally displaced and underserved populations could also experience the kind of food protests and riots that were seen in some 30 countries in 2007-08. In regions like Karachi, desperate conditions could also feed into ongoing ethnic-political confrontations. Any prolonged unrest in the streets will be detrimental to the political and economic turmoil the country is already facing.
Pakistan is on the course of developing a humanitarian crisis much worse than what it is already experiencing. The extraordinarily dire circumstances demand extraordinary measures.
Towards taking such measures, food donations and other basic relief items are necessary and helpful, but not sufficient. They can feed people but cannot bring them back onto their own two feet. Local and international donors and activists need to take a more comprehensive approach and empower the internally displaced populations, especially the small-scale farm owners and farm workers, to cultivate food for themselves with dignity and self-sufficiency.
The most critical time to do this is now, by mid-November, before the wheat sowing period ends in many parts of the country. We need to help these farmers return to their homes and provide them with necessary resources to fix and cultivate their flood-damaged lands. If fixing land is realistically not possible in particular areas, we should help them find arable lands on a rental or shared basis. If we can do this successfully, by coming spring each of us would make at least some farmers and their families become self-sufficient in their food needs – perhaps even a whole village, depending on the yields.
Approach one or multiple affected families directly or through efforts led by dedicated and trusted individuals and NGOs. This cause will take about two to three hundred dollars at the beginning for transportation to homes – camps or bricks/woods to build shelter, rental tools, tractors, animals to plough land, seeds, filters to clean drinking water, medicine and basic household needs – and thereafter less than a hundred dollars per month (on a need basis) to sustain each family until spring season. We need to act swiftly. These few weeks are our best chance, if not the only chance, to minimize the risk of a food crisis.
It has taken decades of erroneous economic policies, more than just the recent climatic hazards, to bring the economy to its current state of crisis. Empowering small-scale farmers, both men and women alike, will be a critical first step in the direction of a just, sustainable, and self-sufficient agricultural economy.
In the coming months, Pakistan’s food sovereignty will become further tied to its national sovereignty. The current dilemma is that the nation is in dire need of humanitarian support from the world, yet needs to be cautious against hegemonic states and corporate interests that want to make further inroads into Pakistan’s borders in the name of humanitarian relief and fighting extremism. This applies to the most basic needs like wheat seeds, for which the country is at risk of falling into the traps of monopolizing global corporations.
The best hope Pakistan has on the international scene is with independent individuals and organizations that work with a critical awareness of the politics of humanitarian relief and food security of their governments, international monetary institutions, and global corporations.
Aun Ali is doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com. A longer version of this article appeared in PULSE on October 16, 2010.