Battered by Floods and Trapped in Debt, Pakistani Farmers Struggle to Survive

NAWABSHAH, Pakistan — The young woman waded into the waist-deep floodwater that covered her farmland, scouring shriveled stalks of cotton for the few surviving white blooms. Every step she took in the warm water was precarious: Her feet sank into the soft earth. Snakes glided past her. Swarms of mosquitoes whirred in her ears.

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

She is one of the millions of farmworkers whose fields were submerged by the record-shattering floods that have swept across Pakistan. In the hardest-hit regions, where the floods drowned entire villages, the authorities have warned that the floodwater may not fully recede for months.

Still, wherever the water has receded even a bit, farm laborers are scrambling to salvage whatever they can from the battered remains of their cotton and rice harvests. It is desperate work. Many already owe hundreds or thousands of dollars to the landlords whose fields they cultivate each year, as part of a system that has long governed much of rural Pakistan.

Each planting season, the landlords offer the farmers loans to buy fertilizer and seeds. In exchange, the farmers cultivate their fields and earn a small cut of the harvest, a portion of which goes toward repaying the loan.

Abdul Razak walking through his farm, which remains flooded three weeks after the destruction.

Many farmers lost their homes along with everything else they had after the flooding and now living on the side of the road, under makeshift tents.

But now, their summer harvests are in ruins. Unless the water recedes, they will not be able to plant the wheat they harvest each spring. Even if they can, the land is certain to produce less after being damaged by the floodwaters, from a cataclysmic combination of heavy glacier melt and record monsoon rains, which scientists say were both intensified by climate change.

Such extreme weather events that damage crop yields and sink farmers into mounting debt are becoming increasingly common, and are unlikely to end. In recent years, the unpredictability of the seasons has led some members of farming households to migrate to cities as farmers look for more stable jobs. That, in turn, has landlords worried about a coming farm labor shortage, they say.

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

“Our life goes like that — sinking into debt, not earning the money to pay it back, and then we do it again,”said Mairaj Meghwar, 40, a farmer who lives in the village of Lal Muhammad in Sindh Province, the region that sustained the most flood damage.

Lal Muhammad is home to around 40 families, their mud brick houses nestled between fields of tall grass and connected by dirt paths. The nearest town is about an hour’s drive by motorcycle away, and on either side of the long, flat road are rolling fields of cotton.

Inside the village, children chased each other through the grassland while women collected basins of water from their single, rusty hand pump. A few cattle moaned from their makeshift pen of wood sticks.

After the floods, most wells were contaminated, but farmers have no option but to drink the salty iron-tasting water.
A school set up by a local nongovernmental organization remains open after the flooding. Many of the children lost their homes in the disaster.

Like others in neighboring villages, most of the families here have tilled this land for over 100 years. Part of the small, lower-caste Hindu minority in Pakistan, their ancestors carved a living working the fields when it was still considered British India and remained after the British partitioned the subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

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

As a child growing up in the village, Mr. Meghwar used to bring lunch — mostly dal and roti, the traditional lentils and round flatbread — to his father while he worked in the field under the blazing sun. By the time he was big enough to wield a shovel, Mr. Meghwar was working the land alongside his father.

For as long as he can remember, the rhythm of life has been driven by the land. Each fall, he spends two or three months watering, leveling and plowing the fields before sowing neat rows of wheat seeds by hand. Each spring, his family pours into the fields to harvest the wheat and then prepares the land to plant cotton seeds that bloom each fall.

The harvests are his family’s lifeline. The cash they get from the cotton — never more than $300 or $400 — pays for the medicines, vegetables and other necessities they need. But even more important is the wheat, which provides his family a staple food to last the entire year.

“It is even more important than our children. We are living and we are dying for the wheat,” his relative, Padooma, 50, explained. Like many in rural Pakistan, she goes by only one name.

Mairaj Meghwar’s house collapsed after the floods.
A family of cotton farmers next to their lands, after they spent the afternoon collecting what’s left from their cotton field after the floods.

So when monsoon rains like they had never experienced pounded the village and fields for 56 hours straight earlier last month — plunging one harvest underwater and raising the prospect of missing the planting season for another — panic set in.

Fearing her house could collapse, Padooma screamed at her children to get in their courtyard and prayed for God to have mercy on them, she said. Nearby, Mr. Meghwar stood under the rain watching as the water covered his family’s rope bed, then the television, the fans and the refrigerator. Soon the motorcycle he used to go to town was submerged.

As the water level continued to rise, he and his family moved to the nearby road — a bit of higher land — dragging their few cattle with them. The rain drowned out the sound of the children crying. But Mr. Meghwar could hear the walls of his home collapsing one-by-one like small explosions in the distance. Every few hours, he went to the field and watched, helplessly, as the water grew higher and higher until the white cotton blooms were submerged in brown sludge.

“The crops were being destroyed right in front of my eyes,” he said.

When the deluge finally stopped, the entire village rushed to survey the damage. Nearly everyone’s home was either entirely or partially destroyed. Pots, pans and utensils were buried under the battered remains of mud bricks. But even more devastating were the fields.

Padooma’s son, Sunil Kumar, 20, and his wife looked around in disbelief at what was once their cotton harvest. Then she turned to him and asked: “What will we do?

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

Mr. Meghwar, left corner, under a tent with his relatives.
A collapsed room after the flooding.

When Padooma arrived, she fainted.

“My heart was burning,” she said. “Everything was destroyed — there was nothing left.”

Each day that passed, the depth of their family’s financial crisis became more clear.Feverish from what she suspected was malaria, Padooma made her way to the nearby hospital a week later — only to find the medicine she needed had doubled in price. She left empty-handed and went to the market looking for vegetables, but their price had shot up two or even three times as much as before the floods.

Weeks later, when the water began to recede, Padooma and other women rushed back to the fields, desperate to salvage any cotton they could. One recent evening, she trudged through the muddied field, dissecting each surviving bloom to find any small pieces untouched by black stains. Even at dusk, the air was warm and sticky from the humidity. The foot of water covering the field was green, the sludge thick. Above her head, dragonflies trace circles in the air.

Collecting what’s left from cotton fields after the floods.
The cotton balls left after the flooding are mostly damaged and are now considered lower quality cotton.

Every night for weeks, Mr. Meghwar has placed a stick in the remaining flood water and returned to check it at dawn — praying that the level has dropped even a centimeter. Usually this time of year he would be preparing the land to plant wheat by mid-October — a deadline that is fast approaching.

Many of their neighbors’ fields are still submerged, their hopes for planting wheatall gone. But even if Mr. Meghwar manages to plant wheat in time, his prospects are still dim.

He already owes his landlord $400 for the seeds and fertilizer he used to plant the cotton, he said. Gathering everything he needs to plant the wheat would mean borrowing more money. Digging himself out of debt feels all but impossible.

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

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

Flooded cotton fields.
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