Floods are tipping Pakistan into a food crisis
Farmland bigger than the Czech Republic is flooded. Fresh crops are delayed, supply chains disrupted. Now hunger looms.
The catastrophic floods in Pakistan have pushed the country to the brink. These floods follow the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation and the most severe heatwave the country has faced in more than 60 years.
When he visited in September, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said he had “never seen climate carnage on such scale”.
But the awful reality is that this is just the beginning. Another big crisis birthed by the floods faces Pakistan — that of food insecurity.
Pakistan already has some of the highest levels of malnutrition in the world. With the entire supply chain damaged in recent weeks, the country is likely to witness increased vulnerability to malnutrition, especially among women, young people and children.
Across 81 districts, a total of 78,000 sq km (30,000 sq miles) of farmland were flooded. That’s an area bigger than the entire Czech Republic. More than 80 percent of crops across the country were damaged, according to the government. The Sindh province, which produces a considerable share of the country’s food, is one of the worst affected.
Thousands of hectares of standing food crops like rice, onions, tomatoes and other vegetables have been destroyed. More than 6,000km (3,728 miles) of roads and bridges have been damaged, causing significant disruptions to the transport of the food that has survived.
An assessment done in September by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and its partners found that more than 70 percent of individuals interviewed in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region reported difficulty accessing any food, let alone nutritious food.
Keeping food affordable
The United Nations estimates the economic loss due to the floods stands at an enormous $40bn. This in a country reeling from steep inflation, which was already running at a 14-year high of almost 25 percent in July before the floods hit. It’s worse now: Food prices in the affected regions increased three to five times in just a few weeks.
The import of vegetables from neighbouring countries, particularly Afghanistan and Iran, will certainly help. However, the government will have to strictly regulate prices along the supply chain, so food remains affordable for everyone, especially the most vulnerable.
It isn’t just causing problems in Pakistan, which is the world’s eighth-largest producer of wheat. With one-third of the country under water, delays in sowing wheat — which normally happens in November and December — seem inevitable. Draining the flood waters and rejuvenating the soil is going to take several months.
In July, Pakistan agreed to sell 120,000 metric tonnes of wheat towards the World Food Programme’s aid efforts in Afghanistan. Pakistan is also a key transit route to send food into Afghanistan. But the floods have made it much harder to transport aid to Pakistan’s landlocked neighbour, the UN warned in September. Afghanistan is already facing unprecedented levels of hunger and food shortages.
Rebuilding must start now
At least 33 million people have been directly affected by the floods in both rural and urban areas.
In rural regions, the government’s efforts need to focus on draining floodwaters from agricultural lands for the sowing of winter crops. This will save the country from sinking into a prolonged food security crisis.
In urban areas, the government must keep a check on further price rises caused by the cost of imports and supply chain disruptions.
Many informal markets, where people sell food items on pushcarts, or small shops made out of mud structures in low-income areas, have been completely destroyed — along with the livelihoods of those who worked there. The government needs to rehabilitate these markets, creating better infrastructure to make them more resilient to future disasters.
Rapid government action on all of this is critical — and it must start now. It’s possible to envisage riots and other forms of law-and-order situations caused by the enormous pressure on food systems.
We, at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), have been working in Pakistan since 2007. We are in the middle of an assessment that will guide our own interventions aimed at rehabilitating some food marketplaces in the worst affected areas.
Of course, these devastating floods are only the latest evidence of the ways Pakistan and many other countries in the Global South are bearing the brunt of the Global North’s disproportionate abuse of the climate for centuries.
Leading donors must step forward and respond to the joint appeal of the UN and the Pakistani government for $816m — a steep increase from the initial $160m they had requested — needed for immediate relief.
But even once the current crisis passes, the outlook is grim for my country. In the World Bank’s 2021 Climate Risk Country Profile, projections for Pakistan over the next 10 years suggest “yield declines in many key food and cash crops, including cotton, wheat, sugarcane, maize and rice”.
What’s so desperately sad is that women and children in countries like mine are the ones who will suffer the most and end up with the least food on their plates.
As the government of Pakistan and development agencies try to restore the supply chain and rebuild food markets, they must also focus on social safety nets for these segments of the population. The government must also strengthen existing social protection programmes to address the nutrition needs of people with low incomes.
The international community should also help secure the future by committing to a significant increase in its support to help communities adapt to increasingly extreme climates.
The government must ensure the funds it receives are used properly, both to address the immediate challenges spawned by the floods and to rebuild intelligently for when we are inevitably hit by the next large climate event.
Pakistan is at a crossroads. It does not have to drown or go hungry.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.