Pakistanis fight losing battle against ‘super flood’

Post Source: THE NATIONAL  

By Tom Hussain and Rizwan Razi, Foreign Correspondents

Flood victims trudge along a major road that was inundated by floodwaters in the Punjab region on Friday. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

ISLAMABAD // Farmers in northern and central Pakistan, where floodwaters are receding, rushed to sow fast-yielding crops yesterday while rising waters continued to devastate regions in the south. Flood surges from northern Pakistan have swelled the Indus River to 40 times its normal volume and inundated the southern Thatta district since Wednesday, forcing an additional one million people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

Residents had desperately worked with officials to build improvised dykes to prevent floodwaters from inundating towns and villages, but were no match for what Pakistani officials have termed the “super flood”.

Despite repeated warnings from authorities, impoverished residents in Thatta were reluctant to abandon their fields just as farmers upstream had tried earlier to remain on their farms hit by massive floods since late July.

“People had been warned. But only after the river broke its banks and the water started to inundate their villages, they escaped,” said Andro Shiladze, the head of operations for Unicef, the UN children’s fund, in southern Sindh province.

The number of Pakistanis affected has risen sharply over the past two weeks to about 17.2 million people, after the floods ravaged 19 of 23 districts in southern Sindh, displacing 3.7 million people, the UN said.

The growing numbers of affected people threatened to overwhelm the international response to the calamity, UN officials said on Friday.

“We are working day and night to bring reliefs to millions … but the floods appear determined to outrun our efforts,” said Martin Mogwanja, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Pakistan.

He raised fresh alarms about thousands of children left homeless, sick and starving by the floods, which have tracked the flow of the Indus and its tributary rivers from the Himalaya Mountains to the Arabian Sea.

“If nothing is done, an estimated 72,000 children, currently affected by severe acute malnutrition in the flood-affected areas, are at high risk of death,” Mr Mogwanja said.

Because poor farmers depend on seasonal crops, millions of them have been slow to evacuate, exacerbating a natural disaster unprecedented in the country’s 63-year history.

The floods have destroyed 3.4 million hectares of crops in central Punjab and northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces alone, and killed at least 200,000 head of livestock, the UN said.

The floods have affected about 20 per cent of arable land in Pakistan.

Worst hit have been the 40 per cent of Pakistan’s farmers who own a hectare or less, according to Agri Forum Pakistan, a non-government organisation in Lahore.

“They are also the most resilient and will, out of necessity and determination, lead an agricultural bounce-back in the flooded areas,” said Ibrahim Mughal, the chairman of the forum. Such farmers predominate in the Layyah district of Punjab, hit first by the initial flood surge in the Indus, and inundated again two weeks later by the Chenab River.

They returned to their villages last week to find their homes and farms in ruins. But, Mr Mughal said, they had a clear sense of purpose: to reclaim farms carved out of dense woodlands.

“We have been visited by a curse from the Almighty,” said Malik Shaukat, a 74-year-old founder of Sheranwali Basti, or community of lions, a village near the eastern bank of the Indus. “We cleared this land when others dared not even come here, and we will rebuild and replant. We don’t want charity from the government or anybody else,” he said.

Farmers in the village, whose cotton and lentils were destroyed are planning to plant a new crop of lentils that could be harvested before the sowing of wheat in November.

The floods have destroyed one-third of the estimated 450,000 acres of lentils across Pakistan, sending consumer prices soaring and deeply affecting families who consume lentils instead of more expensive meat and poultry.

However, villagers in Layyah said only farmers whose lands have been thinly coated with silt would have the opportunity to plant the interim lentil crop, and earn money until the wheat harvest in May.

Most have lost part or all of the wheat grain from the previous harvest. Other farmers said they would work hard over the next three months to clear their fields of knee-deep mud in time for the wheat crop. The federal government last week raised official prices for canola, an oil-bearing variety of rapeseed, to encourage its cultivation as an interim crop, similar to the lentil initiative in Layyah.

Federal and provincial government officials are still discussing how to distribute seed, fertilisers and pesticides, and organise short-term crop loans, however.

The officials are working to ensure the dispersal of 20,000 rupees (Dh859) to each flood-affected family before Eid al Fitr.
thussain@thenational.ae

* Rizwan Razi reported from Lahore and Layyah

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