When the Harvest Drowns Zainab Iftikhar

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In the vast tapestry of Pakistan’s diverse landscapes, another issue unfolds – the unfortunate journey from food scarcity to food insecurity. While the country boasts a rich agricultural heritage, it grapples with multifaced social, political, economic, and environmental challenges that threaten its food security. The latter, in the form of floods, is one challenge the country is facing even as this article is read, and rains lash various regions.

In the not so distant past – during the summer of 2022 – Pakistan experienced a catastrophic event that shook the nation to its core –  devastating floods that wreaked havoc across vast regions of the country. Triggered by heavy monsoon rains exacerbated by climate change, these floods unleashed a relentless force of destruction leaving a trail of loss and shattered communities in their wake. The impact on the agricultural sector was particularly severe. The floods damaged 80 to 90% of crops across the country. According to a report, 3.6 million acres of crops were destroyed and 800,000 livestock perished. The loss of agricultural productivity affected farmers’ livelihoods and had wider implications for the nation’s food supply chain. This resultantly shot inflation even higher, which was already on the rise after the COVID-19 Pandemic. According to certain reports, Pakistan’s inflation rate was over 24% prior to the floods, and certain commodity prices increased by 500%

Poor governance, vested interests, and delayed response added to the devastation. Timely and accurate responses to early warning systems are crucial in enabling communities to evacuate and take necessary precautions. However, despite repeated early warnings issued by the Pakistan Meteorological Department, relevant authorities were slow in taking preemptive steps. Although the floods started mid-June 2022, establishment of a new National Flood Response and Coordination Centre was not announced till the end of August. Insufficient investment in flood protection infrastructure, including embankments, flood channels, and drainage systems, also contributed to the severity of flood impacts. Aging and poorly constructed water infrastructure was also unable to withstand the force of the waters, leading to breaches and widespread inundation. Unplanned urbanisation, encroachment on floodplains, and illegal construction along riverbanks have obstructed natural water flow channels, exacerbating the intensity and extent of flooding. Additionally, since political parties and factions are deeply divided and prioritise their own agendas over collective welfare, the process of effectively addressing and mitigating flood risks has become challenging and, consequently, there is lack of a unified and cohesive approach to flood management. For instance, last year, Chief Ministers belonging to opposition parties did not attend the National Flood Emergency meeting called by the government, chaired by the Prime Minister himself.

According to a recent Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, Pakistan is one of 20 nations vulnerable to excessive rainfall as a result of climate change. Hence, this is one environmental calamity which will continue to loom. Moreover, the rising inflow of water into our rivers from India which is often unannounced, continues to endanger villages banks raising the possibility of flood-like situation in Chenab, Ravi and Sutlej. The situation is already alarming as 95 people, stranded near Ravi and Tawi were recovered as water level in the rivers surged to a perilous level in July 2023.  

Additionally, 29% of the population is facing acute food insecurity between April to October 2023 and the situation is likely to worsen between November 2023 to January 2024. Similarly, a United Nations report has designated Pakistan as a ‘very high concern area’ in terms of food insecurity. 

In light of the above-mentioned facts, the silent hunger gripping Pakistan demands coordinated action, where federal and provincial policies are in sync with community empowerment, where innovation meets tradition, and compassion drives human security. 

To cope with the alarming issue, investment in agricultural research and development should be prioritised to promote sustainable farming practices, improve irrigation systems, and provide farmers with access to modern technologies. Authorities should develop and implement climate change adaptation strategies that focus on building resilience in the agricultural sector. This includes promoting drought-resistant crop varieties, improving water management systems, and implementing and responding to early warning systems to mitigate the impact of climate-related disasters. Enhancing water management practices through investments in irrigation infrastructure, rainwater harvesting, and water conservation techniques should be accorded the highest priority. Conditional cash transfers and targeted food assistance to provide immediate relief and support to the vulnerable population in accessing nutritious food can help strengthen social safety nets. 

Most importantly, it is crucial for political leaders to prioritise the greater good and work together because the fight against food insecurity, brought on by severe monsoon floods, requires not just a full plate, but a full-hearted commitment to putting aside petty politics, empowering communities, embracing sustainability, and dismantling the grounds that perpetuate hunger. 

Zainab Iftikhar is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. She can be reached at cass.thinkers@casstt.com

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