Pakistan farmers fear famine after floods

A senior government official warns that the floods in Pakistan's farming heartland will lead to severe food shortages and devastate the country's economy.

Pakistani flood survivors eat rice after evacuating from flooded area of Ali Wahan some 20 kilometers from Sukkur on August 8, 2010. Fresh rains lashed flood-hit Pakistan, hampering aid efforts and threatening to deepen a crisis affecting 15 million people in the country's worst ever floods.  AFP PHOTO/Asif HASSAN *** Local Caption ***  154794-01-08.jpg

SUKKUR, PAKISTAN // As the evacuation of thousands of people living along the Indus River continued yesterday, a senior government official warned that the floods in Pakistan's farming heartland will lead to severe food shortages and devastate the country's economy. "A large percentage of the country's GDP is made of agricultural exports, and 60 to 70 per cent of the population depends on agriculture" for their livelihoods, Agha Jan Akhtar, the Sindh provincial government's secretary of agriculture, said in an interview yesterday. "We have US$2 billion (Dh7.35bn) worth of rice exports, which we will now lose. All of our targets will go haywire."

Along with the body blow the floods will deliver to a staggering economy, one of the largest landowners in Sindh said yesterday that impoverished farmers on small parcels - who make up nearly 70 per cent of the country's population - will be facing severe hunger over the next year. "In a couple of weeks the flooding will be over. But the real disaster is coming after that," Hamir Soomro, 50, said.

Mr Soomro, whose family has owned hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in Sindh province for generations, described the farmers' plight. "The rains have destroyed the seeds for next season as well as the stores of rice and wheat they keep to eat until the next harvest. If the floods don't do havoc in the coming days, the rains have already done enough," he said. There were heavy monsoons for a week straight in northern Sindh that left fields flooded and canals overflowing before the threat of flooding even emerged, he said.

Because of an acute water shortage before this season's monsoons, farmers in Sindh had delayed sowing their crops by six weeks. But their hedging ensured that yields would be lower, according to Mr Soomro - and now the yields will be doubly low because of the water damage. Earlier this month, the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Institute for Scholars warned in a report that the increasing food insecurity in Pakistan could lead to violence in coming years as the price of necessities spirals out of reach for the third of Pakistan's population living in poverty.

The effect of the floods, as they render vast fields of wheat, rice, sugarcane and other cash crops unsalvageable, could speed this process up. In Shikarpur, which already has high levels of violent crime, Mr Soomro expects "poverty to shoot up. Law and order will become very bad. No food, no money - [desperate people] will take to dakoity". Mr Akhtar agreed. "There will be serious food security problems across the country. Along with Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh will have severe shortages."

As thousands of people streamed into the city of Sukkur yesterday from areas that have either already been flooded or are under threat, sharecropping farmers expressed profound fear for their futures. Ghulam Haider, who walked with about 100 people from Ghospur village, about 70km away, is now living with them on the side of a road. "Our future is gone," Mr Haider, a rice farmer, said. "All the rice we had from last year is gone and this crop is also gone. We have no food."

Meraj Mahar lives in Sukkur but his family arrived here on Saturday from Shikarpur village. He said he will give rice plant seeds to his cousins from the flooded areas to take back with them to plant next month. "The yield won't be much, just for eating for a few months only," he said. "After that only Allah knows." Lorries, donkey-drawn carts and tractor-pulled trailers filled with villagers and their possessions poured into Sukkur as the army yesterday again ordered people living in low-lying areas to leave their homes. Many are living anywhere they can find space along the congested city's streets and some were furious that the government ordered them to leave their homes but gave them no place to go.

Nearby, the waters of the Indus were flowing only a metre below an embankment wall before reaching the mammoth colonial-era Sukkur barrage, which channels the water into a network of canals. There are fears that the barrage will break and that the huge volumes of water will destroy the canals, which would do unimaginable damage to the area's agricultural lands. To prevent this, a group of about 15 Hindus from Sukkur sat on the river's embankment, clapping rhythmically and singing Sufi-inspired devotional songs. "We hope these bhajans make the water happy so that it doesn't flood," said 50-year-old Parkash, who gave only one name.