Farmers in Pakistan's flood zone fear they won't be able to plant crops in time

SHAH JAMAL, Pakistan (AP) — Abid Hussein fears the deep floodwaters that destroyed his cotton crop, rotted his wheat seeds and swept away his farming tools are not done ravaging his life.

Just weeks before the wheat planting season is to start, his 1.5-acre (0.6-hectare) farm still lies under 3 feet (0.9 meter) of water, and he is certain it will not drain in time.

"I will not be able to plant," the 35-year-old father of four said in despair.

The floodwaters that already devastated one crop in the fields are threatening the next season's crop as well, an aftershock aid workers fear could add to Pakistan's misery and prolong the crisis.

If they miss this season, farmers in the flood areas won't be able to plant wheat for another year and won't harvest it until May 2012, leaving many dependent on food aid for the foreseeable future.

"It's a race against time in areas," said Truls Brekke, a spokesman for the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.

The flooding that swamped as much as one-fifth of the country destroyed 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) of maize, rice, sugar cane and cotton crops and killed 1.2 million livestock and 6 million poultry, according to preliminary estimates by the U.N. and the government.

It also damaged farming infrastructure crucial to beginning the planting season on time at the end of the month. Thousands of irrigation channels are covered in mud or washed away completely. Bore wells were damaged and destroyed along with tractors and farm tools. And some of the dead cattle were used to till the fields.

Some fields are still submerged in water, while in others that appear ready for planting, the water table will be too high. Boundaries between farms have disappeared, and will need to be demarcated anew to prevent disputes, agriculture officials said. Some farmland has lost its topsoil, making planting impossible, though other areas have gained new nutrients from the floodwaters and will be more fertile, Brekke said.

Even those farms will present a challenge, because few farmers were able to salvage their stores of wheat seed, and those who did are using it to feed their families, Brekke said. The U.N. has made an urgent appeal for funds to buy seed for those farmers.

In some parts of Pakistan, the sowing season starts in a few weeks — in other areas it will be a little later — and it will last for less than two weeks, making it crucial that the farms be ready and seeds be in place as soon as possible, said Brekke.

"The time issue is critical when it comes to agricultural," he said. "If you miss the sowing by 10 days, you could miss the harvest for a year."

A missed planting season will be unlikely to lead to food shortages, because the past two years have been bumper crops here, and there is plenty of food in storage, said Ibrahim Mughal, head of AgriForum Pakistan, an association of farmers in the country. But it would be devastating for small-scale farmers trying to rebuild their lives.

"I am afraid that hardly half of them may be in a position to produce their agriculture, and the rest of them may remain dependent for two or three years in the future," Mughal said.

Hussein fears his fields will take months to drain.

He already lost 80,000 rupees (about $1,000) worth of crops and another 800 pounds (400 kilograms) of wheat seed. He managed to salvage his five head of cattle, but will have to sell them to rebuild his house, leaving nothing left to invest in his farm when it eventually dries out, he said.

Arif Nadeem, agriculture secretary of Punjab, said the provincial government was discussing a plan to give farmers wheat seed for up to 10 acres (4 hectares), fertilizer and money to prepare the land for planting. It also expected to pay farmers to fix the irrigation canals, he said.

"The government is making an all out effort to address (the crisis) as well as is humanly possible," he said.

Across the Shah Jamal area, 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of the city of Multan, farms have been turned into vast lakes, with hardened stalks of dead crops jutting from the water.

Sajid Hussain's 4 acres (1.6 hectares) of cotton lies under 4 feet (1.2 meters) of rushing water where the Indus River and the Chenab River have overflowed their banks and merged. The 22-year-old's 4,400 pounds (2,000 kilograms) of wheat seed is gone and so are his stores of fertilizer. His irrigation ditches were washed away as well.

"For the next six months, I won't be able to grow anything," he said, though he hopes a small backyard garden will help feed his three children.

There is more hope for Bashir Ahmad.

In his muddy 10-acre (4-hectare) field, loose strands of cotton hung like cobwebs between the lifeless, gray stalks that he was tearing from the ground to use as firewood for cooking.

"The upcoming time will be very difficult for us because we have nothing, there is no other source of income," said the farmer, who is in his 50s and is the patriarch of a family of 15 people.

But the water has receded from his fields, and he is confident they will be ready in plenty of time to plant wheat, as long as someone gives him the seeds, fertilizer and pesticides he needs."What can we do? We are poor people. If we have something, then we will cultivate our fields," he said. "Otherwise, we can't do anything."