WASHINGTON — The worst floods in Pakistan's history already have swept through the nation's most important breadbasket provinces, destroying cotton and corn crops, vegetables and orchards, and leaving many people in need of emergency food.
Now experts warn that the food crisis could expand into a long-term problem if farmers can't get the seeds, draft animals and irrigation repairs they need for the fall planting of wheat, the nation's most important crop.
The floods in Pakistan since July are one of the biggest disasters in recent world history. Some 17 million people have been affected, and 1,600 have been killed. Much of the nation's farmland has been inundated, leaving crops destroyed and markets empty.
Pakistan's government estimated that 23 percent of the current crop was destroyed.
"It's making the food-insecure areas much more insecure," said Sohail Jehangir Malik, who's worked as a development expert in Pakistan and for international research and development organizations and now runs a consulting firm in Islamabad. He was visiting Washington for work with the International Food Policy Research Institute and the World Bank.
The looming wheat crisis in Pakistan comes as a drought and wildfires in Russia have cut the harvest there and have helped to drive up worldwide wheat prices.
The floods in Pakistan also have destroyed the logistics and transportation systems that make it possible to get food to markets, Malik said. In addition, much of the stored wheat saved for seed or food stocks has rotted because it couldn't be kept dry.
Poor people have very little ability to store food in Pakistan, Malik said. "They are completely vulnerable."
Poverty has been increasing, and the number of people who are landless or have only tiny farms has been rising. Many Pakistanis think that the previous government seriously underreported the nation's poverty statistics, Malik said.
The important cotton and wheat areas of Punjab and Sindh provinces are prosperous agricultural areas, but they also have very high poverty rates because a small number of large landlords own the land, he said. The floods devastated both provinces.
Flooding was getting worse in southern Sindh province but the waters reportedly were receding in Punjab, the United Nations reported Friday.
Many areas are still under water, and it's not clear how much of the land will be ready to plant this fall, the U.N. report said. In southern Sindh, it could be six to eight weeks before the soil is fit for planting, probably past the best time for sowing.
The loss of draft animals will make it hard for farmers to get the fields ready, the U.N. added. In some places, so much silt has been deposited that it's too deep to plow and machinery will be needed. In the higher elevation areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the top layer of fertile soil has been washed away and what remains is barren.
Malik said that some areas might have better soil after the floods, but the quality of the next wheat crop will depend on whether seeds, fertilizer and irrigation water will be available.
Much of Pakistan's agriculture depends on irrigation, and it's not clear how quickly the damaged canal system can be repaired. The floods damaged the irrigation systems extensively in all provinces.
The floods also destroyed corn, vegetable, fruit, sugarcane and cotton crops. Wheat, the country's most important crop by far, isn't sown until September or October.
If farmers are unable to plant, a massive loss of food production in 2011 and possibly long-term food shortages could result, Abdul Wajid Rana, the economic minister at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, wrote in an Aug. 20 report.
A recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said that environmental factors — such as water and food scarcity, natural disasters and the future effects of climate change — could weaken an already weak Pakistani government and help radical Islamist groups recruit more members.
Scientists say it's impossible to link any single extreme weather event such as the Pakistan floods to climate change. Still, the flooding, along with this summer's drought in Russia and other extreme weather events, is part of a pattern of increased heat waves, droughts and heavy rains in some parts of the world since 1950.
Climate researchers also report that higher levels of heat-trapping gases from fossil fuels not only will raise temperatures but also will produce an increase in droughts, heat waves and floods in the future.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program notes on its website, "Changes in extreme weather and climate events have significant impacts and are among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate."
Even before the floods, in Pakistan, a nation of 175 million people, 77 million were hungry, 45 million malnourished and 36 percent of the population was below the poverty line, and those figures "could appear modest by comparison in several decades' time," according to a new book on Pakistan's food problems published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Dry weather reduced crop yields in Pakistan last year and early this year, the study said. The nation's small farmers, who make up the great majority of farmers, have struggled with a lack of land and supplies, it added. The government's fight against Islamist militants, which displaced about 3 million people last year, also added to food insecurity.
The Pakistan Embassy's report said that the country would need immediate help in the form of fertilizer for corn and rice crops, along with hand tools, wheat seed and fertilizers for fall planting. It will seek potato seed and fertilizers in the months ahead, along with help to rebuild damaged orchards.
The United States has pledged about $200 million to Pakistan's flood relief. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the government's aid figure earlier this month and called on citizens and corporations to contribute also.
(Saeed Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, contributed to this article from Pakistan.)
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