Pakistani villages recover slowly from epic floods

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RAJANPUR, Pakistan — Cradling his infant son in one arm, a village farmer brought out a wooden trough he had nailed together from broken boards. His brother poured grain into it. Hearing the sound, the family cow trotted across the yard and buried her nose in the feed. The little boy waved his arms, and everyone laughed.

Rajanpur, a rural district of southwestern Punjab province, sits at the edge of a vast fertile belt that has long been known as the breadbasket of Pakistan, growing much of its wheat, sugar, feed corn and cotton, as well as mangoes and green vegetables.

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

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

“It’s going to take a long time before things recover here,” said Mohammed Ali, a day laborer in his 40s who helps fetch the containers every morning. “It’s still hard to grow anything on the land. People have lost their homes and their belongings. But at least this way they can have some sweet water in the morning.”

Although most of the flooding affected other provinces, Rajanpur and next-door Dera Ghazi Khan were among 84 districts across the country to be declared “national calamity” areas. In Rajanpur alone, according to news reports and officials, 12 people were killed — including a woman bitten by a cobra that washed down from the hills. Another 3,000 were injured, 300,000 acres of cropland were ruined and 28,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, along with 425 schools, 16 hospitals and numerous bridges.

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

Along the way, large puddles of dirty brown water sat stagnant, covered with green scum. A few sandpipers scuttled around the edges — shorebirds from afar that had arrived with the floods and remained behind afterward for reasons of their own.

As the villages came into view, they appeared grim and silent at first. Many mud-brick houses and farm sheds were still in ruins. Roofs were missing, doorways were hung with tarps or jute tents, and piles of nearby rubble had not been moved. Children and baby goats scampered in dirt yards, but little else seemed to be happening.

But on closer look, it became evident that much useful activity was quietly taking place. Most of it was related to caring for farm animals that had survived the floods or been born since then. In one farmyard, a man eagerly showed how he had repaired his smashed chicken coop and dovecote with patches of wire mesh. In another, several people were keeping a close eye on a female goat, who had begun to go into labor inside a makeshift bamboo pen.

Under a shady tree, Mohammad Asghar, 35, was tending to his most valuable possession, a brown and white dairy cow named Honesty. Unlike many of his skeptical neighbors, he had planned ahead when the first flood warnings came, walking her to a high paved road before the water rose and taking a supply of fodder as well. “I wanted to make sure nothing happened to her,” he said. “She gives me 3.5 liters [about a gallon] of milk every day.”

Planting and tending new crops, however, has proved to be far more challenging. Most of the farmers’ stored seeds and tools were washed away or ruined. The surrounding cropland was submerged for several months afterward, leaving a soggy, useless mess.

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A variety of government and private agencies have brought help to the area since the floods, but the bulk of it was devoted to initial emergency rescues. As in many other parts of Pakistan, thousands of Rajanpur residents fled their flooded villages or were evacuated in boats, then marooned for weeks on elevated paved roads. Aid teams 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 south Punjab coordinator for a private charity called Muslim Hands, which delivered food, supplies and medical aid to more than 14,000 stranded people. Now that most have returned home, he said, the group is focusing on permanent needs to sustain farming and daily life, such as water pumps and desalination kits. It also offers families a Quran if theirs was washed away or damaged. Every home needs to have one, he said. “It is an important cultural value.”

But long-term support for farm rehabilitation across millions of unusable acres is far more expensive than emergency food and medicine, and the floods struck at a time when Pakistan was already facing a long list of economic woes — rampant inflation, dwindling foreign reserves, record-low currency rates, and a heavy foreign debt burden that raised the prospect of financial default.

One estimate by Pakistani and U.N. officials put the total costs for flood damage recovery and reconstruction at $16.3 billion. Early international response was low, in part because of reports of aid misuse during Pakistan’s last major floods, in 2010. A conference in Geneva in January, however, donors from 40 countries and institutions, including the European Union, the United States and Saudi Arabia, pledged over $9 billion to help Pakistan recover from the floods, exceeding its request for $8 billion.

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Still, Abid Qaiyum Suleri, an environmental expert in Islamabad, the Pakistani 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 they were yesterday,” with their land useless, their homes still in ruins and scant prospects for the future. Physical reconstruction, he added, “is only part of what is required for a dignified recovery for flood survivors.”

One determined farmer in Rajanpur, a man in his 60s named Hamidullah, decided to take a chance 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, who was heavy and able to swim through the rushing water to higher ground.

“I used to grow cotton and rice, but none of that can grow here now. The land is too 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 ground. “So far it is coming along,” he said. “We lost everything; our beds, our cooking pots, our clothes. But we survived, because of our buffalo,” he said. “If this wheat crop does well, maybe I can rebuild our house.”

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