The havoc caused by the floods is still unfolding. Immediate rescue and relief work will need to continue for quite a while before rehabilitation needs can even be considered. However, our policymakers must begin to give immediate attention to the growing food insecurity threat, as lack of adequate measures taken in the very near future will only add to the woes afflicting the nation’s populace.
While the flood disaster has exacerbated the situation, food insecurity had already become a major problem. According to surveys involving the World Food Programme and local and international agencies, in the past year nearly half our national population was found to be consuming less food than the average nutritional requirement. The food ministry estimates that the floods have now destroyed, or extensively damaged, over 4.25 million acres of agricultural cropland. Pakistan is likely to lose at least one year of good production and may see food production lowered for the next few years because of soil erosion, contamination, and destroyed irrigation.
Prices of food have begun soaring in urban areas since the floods. The lack of food production and massive rural displacements will further push these prices up. An increasing proportion of the rural and urban poor will become malnourished if food inflation is not curbed.
While it is now too late to limit the damage caused by the flooding itself, there is still a chance to prevent mass starvation in the country. There is no doubt that food aid, subsidies and imports will be needed to cope with the present drastic situation. But it is necessary to simultaneously think beyond these temporary measures for the country to be put on a firmer track of securing national food sovereignty. Think-tanks like the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad are rightly stressing the need to make ongoing relief operations more comprehensive. They are calling for ensured access to relief goods for women and girls, who often get sidelined in the rush and chaos of relief work. Women can also be more involved in the eventual revitalisation of flood affected areas. This can be done by providing them relevant income generation opportunities like preserving and processing fruits, vegetables and livestock products. Moreover, work-for-food programmes for poor, landless agricultural labourers to undertake reconstruction would be a good idea so that these people do not idly sit by waiting for hand-outs.
Our national planners must also reconsider some of the other top-heavy policies. For instance, how much of the total area under cultivation (about 57 million acres) should be allocated for cash crops, given the growing food insecurity in the country? Why are we so over-dependent on wheat and rice production, when coarse grains (sorghum or millet) require relatively little water to cultivate, and contain more nutrients than wheat? Is leasing our state land for UAE agri-business firms to grow food for their own country in exchange for foreign exchange really a good idea? And, why do most rural households across the country own no land given that better access to land is proven to cheapen the relative price of food and to produce better nutritional outcomes?
Hunger in Pakistan is now a very serious threat. Horrifying reports of suicides and violence sparked by hunger could increase rapidly, and may begin to turn into major food riots. The only sensible way to prevent such catastrophic events is to correct our lopsided policy priorities which have led the country to the brink of such utter desperation.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 28th, 2010.