Flooded and trapped in debt, Pakistani farmers struggle to survive

NAWABSHAH, Pakistan – A young woman waded into waist-deep water that covered her farmland, scouring the wispy stalks of cotton for the few remaining white flowers. Her every step in the warm water was precarious: Her feet seemed to sink into soft earth. The snake passed her. Mosquitoes buzzed in her ears.

But the farmer – Barmeena, just 14 – had no choice. “It was our only source of livelihood,” she told journalists while visiting the New York Times.

She is one of millions of workers whose fields were submerged by record-breaking floods that swept through Pakistan. In the worst-affected areas, where floods have engulfed entire villages, authorities have warned that floodwaters may not recede for months.

However, wherever the water receded even a little, farm workers scrambled to pick up what they could from the remnants of their cotton and rice harvests. It’s desperate work. Many owe hundreds or thousands of dollars to landowners whose fields they farm every year, as part of a system that has long ruled much of rural Pakistan.

For each planting season, landlords lend money to farmers to buy fertilizer and seeds. In return, the farmers cultivate their fields and earn a small portion of the harvest, part of which is used to pay off debts.

But now, their summer harvest is being ruined. Unless the water recedes, they won’t be able to plant the wheat they harvest each spring. Even if they could, land would inevitably produce less after being ravaged by floodwaters, from the cataclysmic combination of heavy ice melt and record-breaking monsoon rains, which scientists say argue that both are enhanced by climate change.

Such extreme weather events that damage crop yields and push farmers into debt are becoming increasingly common and difficult to stop. In recent years, the erratic seasons have led some farmers to migrate to the city in search of more stable jobs. That, they say, has left landowners worried about an impending shortage of farm labor.

But other farmers feel they have no choice but to stay.

“Our lives were like that – drowning in debt, not earning money to pay it back, and then we did” Mairaj Meghwar, 40 years old, a farmer living in Lal Muhammad village, Sindh province, the area most affected by the floods said.

Lal Muhammad is home to about 40 families, their mud-brick houses nestled among tall grass fields and connected by dirt roads. The nearest town is about an hour’s drive away, and the long, flat road is flanked by cotton fields.

In the village, children chase each other across the grasslands while women collect water tanks from their only rusty hand pump. A few cattle groaned from their makeshift barns.

Like the neighboring villages, most of the families here have been cultivating this land for more than 100 years. As part of a small, lower caste Hindu minority in Pakistan, their ancestors made their living working in the fields when it was still considered British India and persisted after the British partition. subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

But even as the world around them redefined itself, little has changed for the farmers across the generations.

As a child growing up in the village, Mr. Meghwar used to bring lunch – mainly dal and roti, traditional lentils and bagels – for his father as he worked in the fields under the blazing sun. When he was old enough to hold a shovel, Mr. Meghwar was working on the ground with his father.

As long as he could remember, the rhythm of life was controlled by the earth. Each fall, he spends two or three months watering, leveling, and plowing the fields before sowing neat rows of wheat by hand. Every spring, his family goes to the fields to harvest wheat and prepare the land to sow cotton seeds that bloom in each autumn.

The crops were the lifeblood of his family. The money they get from cotton – never more than $300 or $400 – pays for the medicine, vegetables, and other necessities they need. But the most important thing is wheat, which provides the main food for his family to live all year.

“It is more important than our children. We are living and we are dying for wheat,” his relative, 50-year-old Padooma, explained. Like many people in rural Pakistan, she has only one name.

So when monsoon rains like never before hit villages and fields for 56 hours straight earlier last month – sending a harvest underwater and raising the prospect of missing the season. another planting – panic begins to occur.

Fearing her house might collapse, Padooma yelled at her children to get into their yard and pray to God to have mercy on them, she said. Nearby, Mr. Meghwar stood in the rain watching the water cover his family’s wire bed, then the television, fan and refrigerator. Soon the motorbike he used to go to town was submerged.

As the water level continued to rise, he and his family moved to a nearby road – a little higher ground – pulling some of their livestock. The rain drowned out the cries of children. But Mr Meghwar could hear the walls of his house collapsing one by one like small explosions in the distance. Every few hours, he helplessly watched the water rise higher and higher until the white rice flowers were submerged in the brown mud.

“The crops are being destroyed right before my eyes,” he said.

When the cataclysm finally stopped, the whole village rushed to survey the damage. Nearly everyone’s homes were completely or partially destroyed. Pots, pans and utensils were buried under the remnants of mud bricks. But even more devastated were the fields.

Padooma’s son, 20-year-old Sunil Kumar, and his wife look around incredulously at what was once their cotton harvest. Then she turned to him and asked, “What are we going to do?

Mr. Kumar stood speechless for what felt like eternity and finally replied: “At least we saved ourselves.”

When Padooma arrived, she fainted.

“My heart is on fire,” she said. “Everything has been destroyed – there is nothing left.”

With each passing day, their family’s financial crisis became more apparent. Feverish with what she suspected was malaria, Padooma went to a nearby hospital a week later – only to find the medicine she needed had doubled in price. She went to the market empty-handed to find vegetables, but their prices have doubled, even tripled compared to before the flood.

Weeks later, as the water began to recede, Padooma and the other women hurried back into the fields, trying to pick up the flowers they could. On a recent evening, she trudged through the muddy field, dissecting each remaining flower to find any small pieces left by the black spots. Even at dusk, the air is warm and humid. The water at the foot of the field is green, the mud is thick. Above her head, dragonflies circled in the air.

Every night for weeks, Mr. Meghwar put a stick in the remaining floodwater and returned to check at dawn – praying that the water level had dropped even a centimeter. Usually at this time of year, he would prepare the land for wheat in mid-October – the deadline is fast approaching.

Many neighbors’ fields are still flooded, hoping to grow their own wheat all go. But even if Mr. Meghwar planted the wheat at the right time, his prospects remained dim.

He owed his landlord $400 for the seeds and fertilizer he used to grow cotton, he said. Collecting everything he needed to grow wheat meant borrowing more money. Digging yourself out of debt feels all but impossible.

“I don’t like this life, but we’re stuck in it,” he said. Then, looking down at his hands, he shook his head.

“We are slaves, that is clear,” he said.


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