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Nothing more precious than a buffalo

Pakistan, November 10, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Cousins Kalee Mullah, 21, Ali More, 24, and Fazel Rehman, 25, recently returned to their village of Kandh Kot in the Kashmore District of Pakistan. The village was flooded when the levee failed. They lost this year's rice crop and many of their fileds are covered with sand and silt after flood waters receded. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Hanifa, 30, holds a handful of ruined wheat in the village of Kandh Kot in the Kashmore District of Pakistan. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Buffalo remains after floodwaters receded in the Kashmore District of Pakistan. Precious livestock were lost in the recent floods in Pakistan. Mercy Corps is helping flood survivors better protect and care for their valuable livestock. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps

Small farmers all over Sindh province were hit hard by this past summer’s catastrophic flooding. Most of these farmers are very poor, living on less than $2 a day. Most are tenant farmers who “pay” landlords with the bulk of their harvests. In a good year, they might have a little left over to sell. In a bad year, they get trapped in cycles of debts to landlords and moneylenders who charge crippling interest rates.

This is a very bad year. Many farmers in this area lost their fall rice crop, and most farmland is so devastated — covered with rubble and sand — that they won’t be able to plant the spring wheat crop. That means they lose two seasons of critical income.

In the village of Marik Bao, I met a 25-year-old farmer and father of three named Fazal Rehman. His story is typical. Fazal is a tenant farmer who works 15 acres of land. He and his family recently returned to their land after nearly three months of living in a school and then a roadside camp. He’s happy to be home but very worried about the future.

Fazal will go into significant debt plowing and irrigating a chunk of his land to plant wheat for the spring, but some land is too wrecked to salvage. He won’t make any money this year. Fazal estimates it will take five years for his farm to get back to normal; my Pakistani colleague thinks he’s being optimistic.

One thing I noticed in talking to Fazal and other farmers in Sindh is that animals mean everything to them. Animals are critical sources of income and food, and for many farmers, they’re prized and beloved. Even the poorest farmer owns a handful of buffalo, cows, goats and sheep.

Almost all farmers took their animals with them as the flood waters rose; some even risked their lives to do it. Many were forced to sell their animals in a hurry to buy basics for their newly displaced families. A glutted market meant that sellers got a raw deal. Fazal told me that he sold one of his precious buffalo to buy food for the rest of his animals. He would normally be able to sell for $1050; instead he could only get $250.

People are very worried about their livestock. Most farming families lost their usual animal fodder — wheat, grass, straw — in the floods. Livestock were left hungry and scrounging to eat grass filled with sludge and drink contaminated water. As a result, the family buffalo or cow is often sick and can’t produce quality milk; some animals are dying.

Fazal asked me a common question: “We don’t have enough money to feed ourselves, how will we feed our livestock?”

In the coming months, Mercy Corps will work to alleviate some of these worries by helping farmers ensure that surviving livestock are healthy and productive. In the short term, we will distribute quality fodder to 1,250 farming families so that their animals have quality food to eat. We’ll also provide cash grants and technical expertise to 50 villages to help them set up local veterinary services to keep the animals healthy.

After the first couple of months, our team will provide monthly training sessions on animal husbandry so farmers will know how to best feed, clean and provide medical care for the animals. Later in the program, we hope to help farmers link up with companies like Nestle and Engro to find reliable, fair-priced markets for their dairy products.

With so many needs in Pakistan, it’s hard to know where to start. We’ve chosen to focus where we can make the most difference, and build on previous work we’ve done in Sindh province with farmers and livestock. We know that, in this part of the country, if animals are thriving, farmers and their families are thriving too.