For decades, Manzoor Hussain Khoso had a good life on his 16-acre farm in Pakistan’s Sindh province. The wheat and rice he cultivated allowed the 64-year-old to provide for his family of nine. But all that changed in August 2022 when unprecedented flooding turned his village into a lake. It would remain completely submerged for nearly two months.
“I lost all my crops,” Khoso told The New Humanitarian. “The government said they would provide us with seeds for wheat cultivation, but we received nothing.”
Families across the country were devastated by the floods. More than 1,700 people died, 33 million were affected, and an estimated eight million were displaced. To make matters worse, some 9.4 million acres of crops were destroyed and more than 1.1 million farm animals perished.
The floodwaters finally receded and the harvesting of cotton, a key crop, resumed in much of Sindh. But residents of the nation’s second most-populous province – from landowners to small-scale farmers, from manual labourers to government workers – told The New Humanitarian they’re still struggling to feed themselves more than a year later.
“We still live in tents and borrow money to make ends meet,” said Khoso.
Scientists have attributed the flood disaster to climate change. But equally crippling in its aftermath have been political and economic crises that have led to soaring food and energy prices, plummeting currency values, and an increasingly angry populace unable to afford basic goods and services.
“Everyone in flood-affected areas [has] lost their livelihoods and, with the inflation, they have no means to support themselves,” said Wazir Ali, a 42-year-old farmer with 40 acres of land just outside Khairpur Nathan Shah, a major town in northern Sindh known as K.N. Shah.
Since last year’s no-confidence motion that resulted in the ouster of former prime minister Imran Khan, Pakistan’s political crisis has been a distraction from efforts to fix the struggling economy, with the humanitarian response in places like Sindh also taking a backseat.
In June, the country of 241 million narrowly avoided default after reaching an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $3 billion rescue package, which included conditions such as increasing fuel prices. Recently, protests against rising petrol and electricity prices have turned violent.
There is food, but people can’t afford it
A recent assessment of 43 rural districts in the three provinces most affected by floods – Balochistan, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – found that 29% of the population were experiencing high levels of hunger.
The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system – created to track food insecurity and more accurately predict extreme hunger and famine – has warned that the situation is expected to worsen between November 2023 and January 2024.
Continued food inflation will likely be a contributing factor. Though overall inflation slowed to 27.4% in August from a record high of 38% in May, food prices remained high in both urban and rural areas. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics says food inflation continues to hover between 38.8% and 40.6%.
This has led to a situation where people can’t afford food, even when plenty is available, explained Arshad Muhammad, country director for the international aid agency Mercy Corps. Muhammad pointed to this year’s bumper harvest of wheat, and Pakistan’s position as one of the world’s top 10 wheat producers, as further evidence of the paradox millions of Pakistanis now find themselves facing.
Take for example Moomal, whose family lives in K.N. Shah. The 48-year-old said her husband’s income as a manual labourer can no longer cover the family’s basic expenses.
“We cannot afford to buy [cooking] oil,” said Moomal, who only gave one name. ”We cook the same vegetables almost every day without any spices. We haven't had meat in months. We can’t even afford to make tea in the evenings.”
Sitting in the two-room house shared by four families that still bears the marks and cracks caused by last year’s floods, Moomal explained how the family has been forced to cut back due to the combination of her husband’s decreasing income and the record-high inflation.
“Before the floods, everything was better,” she said. “Now, whatever little income we have goes towards food.”
The hunger is also having a very real effect on future generations of Moomal’s family. Her heavily pregnant daughter-in-law fears the impact her meagre diet could have on the health of her unborn child.
“I feel weak because I do not get to eat,” said 27-year-old Noor, now in her ninth month. “I have barely eaten any fruit during this pregnancy.”
Illness has prevented her husband from working. “He has stomach issues and TB, so he is unable to work although he is employed as a vaccinator in the hospital,” Noor said.
Throughout the country, low-income households in flood-affected areas continue to suffer, even in some of Pakistan’s biggest cities.
In Karachi, the capital of Sindh, Parveen Saeed, the founder of the Khana Ghar community kitchen, said she is now feeding 8,000 people a day, compared to 4,000 or 5,000 a couple of years ago.
Established in 2002, the kitchen charges three rupees – about three US cents – for a plate of curry and flatbread, but she has started providing the meals free to those who can’t afford it.
“We used to be able to support anyone who asked for help, but now the amount of people asking for donations has increased so much that as a small, independent organisation we aren’t able to help everyone,” she said.
In the long line of people snaked outside Saeed’s office waiting for food, Rizwana told The New Humanitarian she has been relying on Khana Ghar to feed her family of seven for five years: “The queues are getting longer,” she said. “Sometimes, I leave without getting food.”
Climate crisis continues to loom large
In the mountainous and sparsely populated province of Balochistan to the northwest of Sindh, weather-related disasters have slashed harvests for a populace already used to years of hardship thanks to extreme weather.
Maryam Jamali, the 20-year-old co-founder of Indigenous-led community organisation Madat Balochistan, said recurring floods and droughts have affected her district, Jaffarabad, for the past 15 years. Coming after a prolonged drought, the 2022 floods destroyed rice harvests and seeds for wheat, while heavy rains this year wiped out the wheat harvest.
“There hasn’t been a year where there was enough food that I know of in my lifetime,” Jamali said. “Many of the places we are working are agricultural-based economies,” she explained. “They have no other source of income… so when agriculture is gone they have nothing to survive on.”
Jamali said sharecropping, practised by many small-scale Pakistani farmers, was contributing to this plight.
Under this system, farmers rely on loans – either from merchants or informal lenders – to buy fertiliser and seeds and pay them back with a portion of their crops. When harvests are destroyed, farmers end up deeper in debt. Still, agriculture remains the country’s largest sector, employing nearly half of the labour force and contributing about 24% of its GDP.
But farming is also highly vulnerable to changes in precipitation and temperature. Farmers, landlords, and aid workers told The New Humanitarian they are seeing more frequent floods and subtle shifts in planting seasons.
“The cropping calendar I have observed in my lifetime has been changing. Pakistan is not prepared or fully adapted to these changes in the climate,” said Aamer Irshad, assistant representative for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Pakistan.
Climate change is already bringing both excessive monsoon rainfall and prolonged heat waves to the country, according to World Weather Attribution, a global research collaboration that analyses linkages between extreme weather and climate change.
Irrigation, a key basis for Pakistani farmers, is also under threat as the availability of water is not predictable anymore, said Mercy Corps’ Muhammad.
Habib Wardag, a food security expert with Save The Children Pakistan, added that the El Niño phenomenon, associated with drier-than-normal conditions, is already reducing rainfall in parts of Sindh and Balochistan. He warned that if local food production is further reduced as a result of climate change, Pakistan could face trouble on both fronts – higher prices as well as lower production.
Over-reliance on imports and cereals
The combination of rising hunger and malnutrition, economic and political woes, and weather extremes makes it all the more urgent to ensure that Pakistan’s food system is resilient and can provide enough nutritious food that is affordable, aid experts said.
But, they added, the country’s reliance on imports (including for nearly 90% of its edible oils), the lack of government support for nutritious foods, and the culture of carbohydrate-heavy diets (high in calories but low in nutrients) all pose serious challenges.
Pakistani farmers depend on fertilisers from Ukraine and Russia, and the price of one key fertiliser has increased by nearly five times compared to three years ago, according to Irshad.
He explained how most inputs for the poultry industry are also imported – with animal feed coming from Brazil and the United States, and medicine coming from Europe and China – so when feed prices went up, the cost of eggs and meat in local markets did too.
Government policies and investment also support cotton and cereals – rice, wheat, sugarcane, and maize – while the development of nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, and fish is marginalised, Irshad said: “The government is indirectly supporting less diversity and, therefore, the food that Pakistanis eat is not very healthy.”
The government also needs to put more money into researching the best farming practices to mitigate and adapt to climate change, according to Farrah Naz, country director for the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).
“Many stakeholders are trying to work on climate-smart agriculture and there are efforts at developing more climate-adaptable seed varieties,” Naz said, calling for experts with proven track records to help small-scale farmers produce food sustainably and effectively.
But it’s not all in the Pakistani government’s hands. World leaders also need to keep the commitments made during the last climate negotiations to financially support vulnerable countries like Pakistan, said Muhammad, alluding to promises to set up a loss and damage fund to help those hit by disasters.
“A delay in meeting [those commitments] has an impact on people's lives, their children’s lives, and what they eat,” he said.
The lack of support, and of solutions, is keenly felt in the flood-hit Sindh village of Bhooro Magrio, where worries about food and health preoccupy Maira, a young mother taking a break with a group of female farm workers.
“We earn 250-300 rupees (almost $3) per day picking cotton, but work is seasonal. What [should] we prioritise with such a low income and high inflation – food or medicines?” asked the 20-year-old, who has been working as a farm labourer for four years.
“My son only gets to eat bread and boiled potatoes,” she said. “I always feel weak, and the doctor said I am anaemic and underweight.”
Somaiyah Hafeez reported from Sindh, Pakistan. Thin Lei Win reported from Turin, Italy.
Edited by Ali M. Latifi.