by Aun Ali
Pakistan’s massive floods 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 of thousands other to the rest of Pakistan. They all lack proper shelter, food, clean water, medicine, and other basic supplies. At least six million are at risk of waterborne diseases, including an estimated 3.5 million children according to U.N.
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 variable food supply expected from the unaffected regions, a famine-like food crisis is imminent in many parts of the country that could be in full swing by coming spring when Pakistan’s current food stocks will start to run out. The shockwaves will be so far reaching that even the unaffected regions will not be spared.
Especially the high density urban areas that heavily depend on rural areas for food supply will experience acute shortage and a steep rise in prices of food and other daily supplies and services (as part of a contingent effect). The major cities were already hit by dramatic price increases last month, probably artificially created by hoarders and retailers, but in coming months food shortage and price hikes will be much more real and deadly for everyone – especially the internally displaced population.
The inefficiency and corruption within the present civilian government are evident to any discerning observer, just as its continuous friction with the powerful military establishment. The government is still in power due more to Washington’s patronage than grassroots support, but its existence remains highly volatile, and perhaps for that reason it sometimes seems more preoccupied in political maneuvers to preserve itself than extending help to people in need. In recent months, both the government and the establishment effectively failed to keep the climatic hazard of Attabad Lake from turning into a humanitarian crisis. No extraordinary performance is expected this time either considering the exponentially larger scale of the current tragedy.
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, thereby increasing the burden on the local economies of these areas. Poverty and hunger will push people from among the homeless and poor and working classes to form local supportive networks. But desperate circumstances could also force some to sell all their assets, beg in 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 concentration of internally displaced and underserved populations may also experience the kind of food protests and riots seen in Haiti, Egypt, and Somalia in 2007-08. Desperate conditions could also feed into ongoing political-ethnic confrontations in regions like Karachi where the internally displaced and other recent emigrants from different ethnic backgrounds may be seen by some as “outsiders” who would be held responsible for local economic troubles and therefore targeted with neglect or violence. It should not be difficult to those familiar with Karachi’s political dynamics, the recent controversy over specter of “Talibanisation”, and the long history of clashes and target killings among its political-ethnic groups to imagine how a further influx of internally displaced population confounded with increasing economic troubles could lead to sporadic unrest in the city. Any prolonged unrest in the streets will be detrimental to the political and economic turmoil Pakistan is already facing.
Pakistan’s current foreign reserves are too thin to face a widespread food shortage. Compounded by the typical corruption, incompetence, and cronyism of our governments, the IMF-dictated neoliberal economic reforms of the last two decades led to uneven development and privatization of many public services in the country. The policies in particular intensified the economic and social disparities between urban and rural areas. The more long term integration into global economy through a trade-based paradigm, with emphasis on cultivating mono-culture cash crops for export purposes, further incapacitated the country’s agricultural economy to meet its own food needs in recent years. The economy does not have the strength to endure even the present crisis, let alone what lies ahead.
A perplexing challenge is to persuade the medium- and large-scale farmers, both in the affected and unaffected regions, to cultivate wheat and other food crops at optimal planting times this year, and then not export them until local needs are met. Because of country’s power structure and the way politics works, to suggest that the current government intervene through export restrictions and buy food stocks at a fair price can be very tricky. For instance, uneven or selective implementation of such policies in which some farmers are targeted and others are favored will be detrimental to both its economy and political stability. Alternatively, if the government purchases their stocks at a competitive rate (compared to the international market), then local wheat will become too expensive and beyond the average family’s reach.
On the international scene, more than one billion people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition according to U.N., and their situation is not getting any better. At least 30 countries experienced some form of food crisis and unrest just a couple of years ago, prompting projections of more to come. With global economic recession still in effect, an export ban on wheat by Russia, the world’s third-largest wheat producer, and rising food prices internationally, it is hard to imagine that Pakistan will continue to receive even the equivalent of whatever insufficient support in money, food, and other supplies the country has received so far from international sources. The dysfunctional distribution mechanisms, speculations, and monopolies that are chronically embedded in the international food market and that are responsible for price hikes and global hunger more than food shortage itself make it very uncertain that we will be able to import food stocks at an affordable rate next year.
Pakistan is on the course of developing a humanitarian crisis much worse than what it is experiencing right now. The extraordinarily bad circumstances demand extraordinary measures.
Support Small-Scale Farmers
Toward taking such measures, donations in food and other basic relief items are necessary and helpful, but not sufficient. They can feed people but cannot bring people back on their feet. Mere donations of food and other basic supplies will in fact reinforce Pakistan’s dependency, and if the situation gets worse in coming spring, Pakistan will be forced to beg for an even larger supply of these donations. In the long run, free or cheap supply of donated wheat and other food crops in local markets can incapacitate the ability of small-scale farmers to cultivate and sell their crops at sustainable rates. That is if Pakistan can manage to get international food donations consistently and sufficiently, which is quite unlikely. Hence, in any case, food donations alone cannot be a sustainable solution.
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. For that, as the first step in the present context, we should reconnect these people to their lands.
The most critical time to do that is now, by mid-November, before the wheat sowing period ends in many parts of the country. Farmers need to return to their homes and be provided with the necessary resources to fix and cultivate their flood-damaged lands. If fixing land is realistically not possible in particular cases, arable lands should be provided on a rental or shared basis. If this is done successfully, by spring at least some farmers and their families will become self-sufficient in their food needs – perhaps even whole villages, 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 pounds at the beginning – for transportation to home, camp or bricks/woods to build shelter, rental tools/tractor/animal to plough land, seeds, filters to clean drinking water, medicine, and basic household items – and then less than a hundred pounds per month (on need basis) to sustain each family until the spring.
Toward Food Sovereignty
Pakistan’s massive floods are a climatic disaster turned into a cosmic catastrophe by human failures. The complex of dams or barrages constructed and modernized over years in Pakistan that were meant to control the natural water flow may have actually exacerbated the problem by increasing pressure at unwarranted points. A widely circulated OCHA map indicates that a number of areas behind or adjacent to these structures accrued the hardest damages. Governance failures and inadequate humanitarian relief to millions have further compounded the devastation of these floods. Even if some climatic factors were largely responsible for the recent floods, the upcoming floods in the form of a widespread food crisis would definitely be man-made. That is also to suggest that with the right measures taken at the right time we can prevent it too.
Time is running out for Pakistan. The sooner we empower these farmers, the better we can confront the coming food crisis. It took decades of misguided economic policies, more than just recent climatic hazards, to bring the economy to its current state of crisis. Empowering small-scale farmers – men and women – will be a critical first step in the direction of a just, sustainable, and self-sufficient agricultural economy.
In coming months, Pakistan’s food sovereignty will get further tied to its national sovereignty. Our current dilemma is that we are in dire need of humanitarian support from the world, yet we need to be cautious against hegemonic state and corporate interests that want to make further inroads into our borders in the name of humanitarian relief and fighting extremism. This applies to our most basic needs like wheat seeds for which we are at risk of falling in the traps of monopolizing global corporations.
The best we can hope for on the international scene lies 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.