In Pakistan, Either Too Much Water, or Too Little

ACF’s Technical Assistant Kendra Hughbanks reports from Thatta, Pakistan, where recurrent floods and changes in the water table have had dire impacts on food production.
Kendra in Thatta with locals.
Kendra in Thatta with locals.

As a Seattle native, I wasn’t expecting that the drive to Action Against Hunger’s base in Thatta, southern Pakistan would remind me of home. But feeling the spring heat wash over me as I stepped off the plane in Karachi and seeing the flat, dry expanse once we escaped the city instantly recalled memories of summer in eastern Washington. Here and there, the arid scrubland gave way to a farming plot or a herd of cattle. Dusty browns and greens stretched to the horizon, speckled with the yellow blooms of sunflowers.

But there was at least one major difference between the landscape I remembered and the one that surrounded me in Pakistan: the salt. In some places, the soil is bone white with salt deposits. When the Indus River—which empties into the sea not far from here—flooded catastrophically in 2010, Action Against Hunger was already responding to Thatta’s serious food production problems caused by such high salt levels.

It wasn’t always like this. For longer than anyone can remember, the river has sustained the lives of those who drank from the wells it filled, and watered their crops from the canals dug into its banks. But recently, a tipping point has been reached. So much water is being used along the river’s 3,200-kilometer course that the force of the river can no longer hold back the salt water of the Arabian Sea.

This creates two major issues. First, the groundwater is no longer fresh, so many people who rely on wells for their water don't have enough to drink. Second, it's extremely difficult to find plants that will grow in soil this salty, so harvests have suffered immensely, leading to food shortages across the South. This was a crisis before the recent, unprecedented flooding. Now, the farming families of Thatta can add drowned harvests and silted irrigation canals to the challenges of farming in salty soil.

Because this region has historically coped with flooding, I wondered at first what was different about these latest deluges. I learned the answer a few days before I arrived in Thatta, when I attended a UN Food Cluster meeting where the NGOs working on food issues in the area meet and discuss methods and strategies. At the meeting, they showed a graph of how many people were affected by floods each year since 1950. Floods have been more frequent in the last 10 years than at any point in this 60-year time span, and the number of affected people has been astronomically higher than for any flood before. What made it worse was the 2010 flood was about seven times higher than any flood since 1950, and though the 2011 flood was lower than in 2010 it was still significantly higher than historic norms.

If you look at all of it together, it’s crystal clear why we’re working here. The infiltration of seawater inland has caused new food production problems and reduced access to clean, potable water. The economic effects of harvests lost to flooding are still acutely felt. Many months after the floods receded, there is still standing water—the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes that can carry Dengue or Malaria. The potential for disease on top of food shortages, a lack of clean water, and livelihood losses make flood-affected families even more susceptible to deadly malnutrition.

These recurrent, severe floods, along with the high salt levels, may well represent the new normal here in Pakistan, so a big part of Action Against Hunger’s work will focus on developing new strategies for farming, introducing salt-resistant crops, and finding novel, cost-effective ways to desalinate water for household use. These are long-term solutions, but we’re also helping those who are starving right now through our Outpatient Therapeutic Program, which I’ll talk more about in my next post.


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What would you do if you turned on your tap one day to find that it only dispensed salt water, and you didn't have the money to buy bottled water?

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About Kendra Hughbanks

Kendra Hughbanks

Kendra is one of Action Against Hunger's Operations Assistants, supporting our headquarters staff and field teams in coordinating and integrating our programs.