ABU DHABI // Farmers in Pakistan's flood-ravaged regions now face a race against the clock to re-establish agricultural practices before the next planting season begins.
At least 70 per cent of Pakistanis affected by the disaster rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, but UN World Food Programme records estimate 3.6 million hectares of cropland were submerged by the floods. In addition, as many as 200,000 head of livestock were killed.
The director of operations for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Jerôme Oberreit, warned it was imperative that the large number of displaced people - who were "at the bottom of the social ladder" before the floods hit - were ready for the next planting season, which begins in February. "There is a real fear [among them] about how to start their lives again, having lost everything," he said, during the return leg of a trip to assess the humanitarian need in Pakistan.
"There is a fear that they are not going to be able to get back for the planting season. If they don't, they will fall into further vulnerability." Many of those displaced are moving closer to their original villages or land as the water recedes, but Mr Oberreit warned that the crisis was far from over. The extent of the flood's effect on the health of soil was unclear. Some tenant farmers have no way to repay debts to their landlords, and an assessment by an MSF psychologist in Jamshoro district reported significant levels of anxiety and depression among many people living in camps there.
MSF, which provides emergency medical support to vulnerable populations in more than 70 countries, is now considering expanding its role in some of the worst-affected areas in order "to try and kick-start lives again", Mr Oberreit said. But he was concerned that "for many of them, their needs are beyond our capacity". "We are intending to stay until the next planting season at least, to see how far the population can cope," he said. "It is not known how much of the population will return to their homes, and how many will be completely destitute: not even having the funds to return, or the land to go back to."
It is important for both the NGOs and the Pakistan government to monitor the situation and identify the gaps that need to be met, he said. He expressed concern that in some parts of southern Sindh province - one of the worst-affected areas in the country - there appeared to be little activity from international NGOs, who were still carrying out assessments. He also expressed concern at the "politicisation" of relief efforts by "leading figures in the West" who have called for the funding of flood-relief activities to serve national security interests.
"It has taken [MSF] years to build up trust in areas such as Swat, and all of this trust can be undone fairly quickly if NGOs don't stay away or voice concern about the politicisation of aid," he said. "If you don't have that trust, and there is no understanding of us being there as neutral and independent, the patients won't even come to our centres because of fear. This really has to be out of the political agenda. We do not take any funding from any government to make it clear that we are detached from any political agenda and our actions are based on needs alone."
In the meantime, the priority for the 160 international and 500 local MSF staff on the ground in Pakistan remains the delivery of clean water to isolated communities where flood waters are due to recede in coming weeks. When that happens, the water will be too shallow to cross by boat and too deep to drive through for "a few weeks", Mr Oberreit said. "We are delivering 1.2 million litres of water per day at seven different sites."