Extreme weather in Pakistan pulls many into downward spiral

by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio | @saleemzeal | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 1 October 2012 14:12 GMT

Farmers unable to repay high-interest loans are being forced into worsening debt and migration

NAGARPARKER, Pakistan (AlertNet) – Floods may be devastating parts of Pakistan, but Mukesh Menghwar is facing drought, just a year after he lost six cows, eight goats and his millet crop to extreme rains.

The weather extremes are hitting farmers like him hard, pulling them into a debt spiral and worsening poverty, he says.

In May, he took out Rs 65,000 ($688) in credit from a local money lender, at a 20 percent interest rate, to buy seed and fertilizer. He also rented a pair of camels for 25 days for another Rs. 6,000 ($64) to plough his land.

But the rains didn’t come to his remote desert farm in Tharparkar district, some 470 kilometers from Karachi.

So the 45-year-old farmer, a father of five, has been forced to migrate north with his family to find work in urban areas in an effort to buy food and pay off the loans.

“All of the family members have to work to repay our loans,” he sadly told AlertNet.

 In August, the chief minister of southern Sindh province, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, declared Tharparker district a disaster area and said it was facing famine.

According to reports by local non-governmental organisations, more than 600,000 people and tens of thousands of cattle have had to migrate out of the district to escape famine.

Spread over 21,000 square kilometers, and inhabited by some 1.5 people in 2,325 scattered villages, Tharparkar district is an example of the kind of already marginal farming and grazing regions around the world that are being hit hardest by climate change.

About 95 percent of people in the southern desert district eke out a living from cattle rearing and raising crops, including pearl millet, cluster bean, green gram and kidney beans.

But the district’s agriculture is rain-fed, and when little rain falls, both people and their animals face disaster.


If droughts hit the desert only ever three or four years, people and their animals have time to recover their losses, locals say. But as changing weather conditions bring droughts and flooding much more frequently, recovery is getting harder.

“Because,the agriculture and livestock farming families were still recovering from the heavy damages (caused by last's year's devastating rains) to crops and livestock, this year's drought conditions have multiplied economic and health miseries and sufferings of these pastoral and nomadic families,” said Ali Akbar Rahimo, executive director of the Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy (AWARE), a not-for-profit local NGO in Tharpakar and adjoining districts.

Tharparkar’s deputy commissioner, Tahir Memon, said this year’s drought has left many families with massive financial losses, particularly if their loans came from private moneylenders.

Generally, farmers procure fertiliser, seed and other farm inputs on credit each year from local moneylenders and sell some of their crops to clear their loans if there are good rains. Those who cannot often default, and many defaulter families end up in bonded labour at brick lins, or working in factories, shops,  or the houses of moneylenders.

Because of the absence of formal government-run lending facilities, most farming families in Tharparkar district are at the mercy of moneylenders, whose inflated interest rates can keep poor families trapped in debt for decades. 

Drought in Tharparker is also worsening health problems in the district, as people and animals too weak to migrate turn to drinking contaminated water, officials said. Pregnant women and young babies are particularly hard hit.

The district’s deputy commissioner said a ‘situation report’ on the current drought suggested measures to deal with it should include providing food, subsidized fodder and free clean drinking water.

“No one in the area will be left unattended,” promised Sindh provincial government’s advisor on relief affairs, Haleem Adil. “While the government is taking all-out efforts to mitigate the effects of drought and arrange food and fodder, the international donor community will be also approached for relief operations, if need be.”

But effectively dealing with climate shifts in the region may require more fundamental changes, from new systems of providing farmer credit to innovations including weather-linked crop insurance and improved water harvesting and storage, experts said.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan.

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