Livestock losses compound Pakistan's misery

(Daniel Berehulak)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 30, 2010

IN MOHIB BANDA, PAKISTAN Many of the people in this northwestern village are back at their mud-caked plots. Many of their strapping black buffaloes are not, having been washed away by the floods still displacing millions of people in the country's south.

The deaths of those animals - and the threat of epidemics among the hungry and weak that survived - has left behind a constellation of calamity. At the local level, it is measured in milk shortages and scores of lost jobs. Nationwide, the loss of livestock is part of a widescale drowning of the agricultural economy that feeds Pakistan, employs half of its population and sustains its crucial textile-export industry.

One month after monsoon rains caused flooding in the northern mountains, relief efforts were still in emergency mode. On Sunday, the Indus River, surging at 40 times its normal volume, breached levees near the southern city of Sujawal. Evidence is growing that the river's path of destruction has stunted, if not annihilated, social and economic systems across Pakistan.

The effects, from increased hunger to obliterated schools, are likely to force Pakistan and the United States - which last fall earmarked billions of dollars in aid to build up Pakistan's civilian government - to retool their development plans. The crisis could also ignite unrest and imperil the Pakistani army's fight against Islamist insurgents, who carried out three deadly bombings and threatened foreign aid workers this week.

Unlike the deadly jolt of the 2005 earthquake that previously ranked as Pakistan's gravest natural disaster, the flooding metastasized like a cancer, submerging an area nearly as large as Florida. With much of the south still underwater, assessing the damage remains guesswork. Where the waters have receded, officials bandy about figures in the sums of millions and billions of dollars.

But there is little doubt that the losses are colossal. The government says 1.2 million houses, 10,000 schools, 35 bridges and 9 percent of the national highway system have been were damaged or destroyed. Even as emergency workers in the northern mountains build temporary bridges, landslides smother more roads.

Unique to this disaster is the extensive agricultural ruin. With as much as 20 percent of farmland inundated, much sugar cane was probably likely lost to root damage, and a quarter of this year's cotton - which accounts for 60 percent of Pakistan's exports - is destroyed, agricultural experts said. Some textile plants have shuttered, laying off workers.

The northern areas that are drying out may be able to manage the October wheat planting, but only if the soil proves resilient, and only if families do not use all their seed as food, said Luigi Damiani of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The wheat season in the flooded fields of southern Sindh province is in jeopardy, he said, meaning that there might be no harvest until summer 2012, and the nation would have less wheat for making bread.

"If you lose this season, it would be dramatic, dramatic," Damiani said.

The floods killed about 1,600 people. More than 17 million have been affected, and nearly 5 million of those lack shelter, officials said. At least 800,000 were still stranded in isolated areas this week, the U.N. reported. Many may never be able to return home, relief officials said.

"In a quick-onset disaster, you bury the dead, and then you start working with the living," said Bill Berger, the disaster assistance response team leader for the U.S. Agency for International Development. In Pakistan, he said, the living amount to millions of victims who will need support.

Some who moved tugged along a lone cow or buffalo - life savings for many of Pakistan's largely poor population of 170 million. This week, cattle shared space with humans at makeshift camps on roadsides in the northwest and along rushing canals in the south. Refugees scavenged for grasses to feed the animals, some bony and afflicted with bacterial diseases and pneumonia.

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