Battered by floods and trapped in debt, Pakistani farmers struggle to survive

A man walks through his farm, which remains flooded three weeks after heavy rains, in Nawabshah, Pakistan, on Sept 15, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NAWABSHAH, Pakistan - The young woman waded into the waist-deep floodwater that covered her farmland, scouring shrivelled 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 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, authorities have warned that the floodwater may not fully recede for months.

Still, wherever the water has receded even a bit, farm labourers are scrambling to salvage whatever they can from the battered remains of their cotton and rice harvests.

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 fertiliser 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.

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.

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 labour 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 Mr Mairaj Meghwar, 40, a farmer who lives in the village of Lal Muhammad in Sindh province, the region that sustained the most flood damage. NYTIMES

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