After epic floods, Pakistani farmers slowly recover


RAJANPUR, Pakistan — Holding his son in one arm, a village farmer pulled out a wooden trough he had nailed together from broken planks. His brother threw wheat inside. Hearing the sound, the family cow pulled into the yard and buried its nose in the feed. The little boy waved his hands and everyone laughed.

Rajanpur, a rural district in the southwestern province of Punjab, lies on the edge of a vast fertile belt long known as the basket of Pakistan, growing much of its wheat, sugar, maize and cotton, as well as mangoes and green vegetables. .

But seven months after the Indus River overflowed its banks and the scenic Sulaiman Hills unleashed torrents of water amid heavy monsoon rains, decimated rural communities are still recovering from Pakistan’s worst natural disaster since its founding in 1947. Nationally, more than 1,700 people lost their lives and over 30 million were displaced. More than a million farm animals also perished, washed away in swift waters or succumbing to hunger and cold.

In another settlement nearby, two men on motorbikes unloaded heavy metal containers full of water, which had been filled at a town pump several miles away. After the floods, the local water remained too salty for either humans or farm animals to drink.

“It will take a long time for things to recover here,” said Muhammad Ali, a day laborer in his 40s who helps bring in the containers every morning. “It’s still hard to grow anything on the land. People have lost their homes and their possessions. But at least that way they can have some fresh water in the morning.”

Although most of the floods affected other provinces, Rajanpur and neighboring Dera Ghazi Khan were among 84 districts across the country that were declared “national disaster” areas. In Rajanpur alone, according to news reports and officials, 12 people were killed – including a woman bitten by a cobra that washed up from the hills. Another 3,000 were injured, 300,000 acres of farmland were destroyed, and 28,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, along with 425 schools, 16 hospitals, and several bridges.

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On a recent visit to several villages, the only access was along narrow, raised dirt roads between endless fields. The surrounding landscape looked like a tornado had roared through it erratically, leaving some areas lush and green, but turning many others into barren, lifeless patches of cracked brown earth that no ordinary plow could mend.

Along the road, large puddles of dirty brown water sat stagnant, covered in green scum. A few sandpipers sunk around the edges – shorebirds from afar that had arrived with the floods and stayed behind afterwards for reasons of their own.

As the villages appeared, at first they appeared gloomy and silent. Many mud brick houses and farm sheds were still in ruins. Roofs were missing, doors were hung with tarpaulins or jute tents, and piles of nearby rubble had not been moved. Children and baby goats ran into dirt yards, but nothing else seemed to be happening.

But on closer inspection, it became apparent that a lot of useful activity was quietly taking place. Most of it involved caring for farm animals that had survived the floods or had been born since then. In one yard, a man eagerly demonstrated how he had repaired his broken chicken coop and pigeon coop with patches of wire mesh. In another, several people closely watched a female goat, which had begun to give birth inside a makeshift bamboo pen.

Under a shady tree, Mohammad Asghar, 35, tended to his most prized possession, a brown and white dairy cow named Honesty. Unlike many of his skeptical neighbours, he had planned ahead when the first flood warnings came, taking her up a high tarmac road before the water rose and also taking in a supply of fodder. “I wanted to make sure nothing happened to her,” he said. “She gives me 3.5 liters (about a gallon) of milk every day.”

However, planting and nurturing new crops has proven much more difficult. Most of the farmers’ stored seeds and tools were washed away or destroyed. The surrounding farmland was submerged for several months afterward, leaving a soggy, useless mess.

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Various government and private agencies have brought aid to the area since the floods, but most of it has been devoted to the first emergency rescues. As in many other parts of Pakistan, thousands of Rajanpur residents fled their flooded villages or were evacuated by boat, then surrounded for weeks on elevated asphalt roads. Aid groups provided tents and blankets, food and water, medical and veterinary services and other immediate needs.

“Our first priority was to save lives,” said Mohsin Issaq, the southern Punjab coordinator for a private charity called Muslim Hands, which has delivered food, supplies and medical aid to more than 14,000 stranded people. Now that most have returned to their homes, he said, the team is focusing on permanent needs to sustain agriculture and daily life, such as water pumps and desalination kits. It also offers families a Koran if theirs is washed away or damaged. Every home should have one, he said. “It’s an important cultural asset.”

But long-term support to restore farms on millions of wasteland is far more expensive than emergency food and medicine, and the floods came at a time when Pakistan was already facing a long list of economic woes — rampant inflation, dwindling foreign reserves , record-low exchange rates and heavy foreign debt that raised the prospect of financial default.

An estimate by Pakistani and UN officials put the total cost of flood damage recovery and reconstruction at $16.3 billion. The early international response was low, partly because of reports of misuse of aid during Pakistan’s last major floods, in 2010. However, at a conference in Geneva in January, donors from 40 countries and institutions, including the European Union, the United States and Saudi Arabia, pledged more than $9 billion to help Pakistan recover from the floods, exceeding its request for $8 billion.

Photographing Pakistan’s devastating floods

But Abid Qaiyum Suleri, an environmental expert in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, noted in an essay in the News newspaper in January that millions of poor people in flood-affected areas feel “as helpless today … as yesterday,” land waste, the their houses still in ruins and little prospects for the future. Physical reconstruction, he added, “is only part of what is required for a dignified rehabilitation of flood survivors.”

A determined farmer in Rajanpur, a man in his 60s named Hamidullah, decided to take a risk two months ago and plant wheat on his four acres of land. He said he felt lucky because he and his wife and children had been saved from the flood by clinging to their large male buffalo, which was heavy and able to swim through the rapids to higher ground.

“I used to grow cotton and rice, but none of that can be grown here now. The land is very dry and they need a lot of water,” he said. He pointed to his small patch of emerald green outside the village, surrounded by larger, barren land. “So far it’s coming,” he said. “We lost everything. our beds, our pots, our clothes. But we survived, because of our buffalo,” he said. “If this wheat crop goes well, maybe I can rebuild our house.”

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