Pakistan floods wipe out more than 1 million animals – and farmers' livelihoods

The death of more than a million livestock in the Pakistan floods has wiped out years of farmers' savings. How the government responds will shape the country's economic future.

By , Staff writer

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    A Pakistani flood victim sits among what was salvaged from the ruins of her home destroyed by floods in the Muzaffargarh district of Punjab Province on Tuesday.
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Floodwaters swept away Ghulam Hussain’s house in Pakistan, $1,100 in jewelry, and $400 cash in a box set aside for his daughter’s wedding. But the biggest financial blow to his family – and to many thousands of others – may be the damage to their herds of livestock.

Mr. Hussain lost four cows (worth $1,600) and four goats (worth $465). The remaining animals are sick, stressed, and not producing much, he explains as he shows the meager goat milk he just squeezed.

“I am waiting for compensation from the government, then I will treat these animals and sell them when they are in better condition,” says Hussain, sitting on the side of a road. If money doesn't come soon, however, he says he – like many others – will have to sell at a steep discount.

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For Pakistan’s rural poor, the death of more than a million livestock represents something akin to a Western stock market crash that wipes out years of savings. Animal products also make up more than 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. How and if Pakistan bails out livestock owners will affect the way millions get back on their feet and the economic future of the nation.

A place to start recovery

Muhammad Abdullah, a livestock expert at the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Lahore says that “we should provide support to those who are maintaining animals, not to those who just claim ‘I lost animals,’ because those claims are hard to verify.”

That support would keep more farmers from having to sell now, thus stabilizing prices that have dropped by half or more amid the sell-off.

The government is planning to give cash to help rebuild homes, but hasn’t yet decided how – or if – to compensate for livestock losses. After the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the government offered some livestock to help replenish herds. In the meantime, government agencies and relief groups have been giving out free fodder and vaccinations for animals.

The monsoon season tends to see increases in animal diseases, and the stress of the flood raises those risks, says Dr. Abdullah. With tens of millions of displaced livestock, the 1.2 million death toll estimate from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization could rise.

A permanent downsizing of animals could be good?

But critics argue the country already has too many animals, and that Pakistan should not replace the dead animals.

“The present calamity offers a chance to promote a permanent downsizing of animal agriculture,” writes Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, an animal advocacy publication.

Over the past decade, he writes, Pakistan pursued rapid growth in animal production. This contributed to production rises of 29 percent in goats, 40 percent in buffaloes, 51 percent in cattle, and 88 percent in poultry from 1998 to 2008. The search for fodder has led to environmental degradation and deforestation of marginal lands, and put pressure on the human population’s food security.

Pakistani livestock experts agree that there are too many animals, though they are more concerned with low productivity than high populations.

“We as professionals involved in the livestock sector, we have always been advocating decreasing the number of livestock and increasing the productivity,” says Abdullah.

The problem with herds before the flood

Livestock owners have allowed their herds to breed indiscriminately, resulting in mutts that yield low milk. And owners tend to keep animals that are past their reproductive prime, meaning resources like fodder are not focused on the best animals.

“Most animals here are unproductive. Pakistan is a leader in milk production internationally just because of the numbers of cattle. And most of those lost were not productive,” says M. Subhan Qureshi, a livestock professor at the Agricultural University Peshawar.

Much of what is produced is wasted, says Mohammad Asad Khan, a manager of the nonprofit Punjab Rural Support Program. Part of rebuilding the agriculture economy, he says, should focus on helping farmers better market their milk to multinational firms and add value to their product.

Abdullah, meanwhile, would like to see the government encourage selective breeding and culling of livestock. The practice of keeping weaker animals may be due to cultural norms.

“When a cow or a buffalo dies, the people of other villages come to his [owner’s] home and mourn with him as they would the death of a son or a daughter,” says Mr. Khan.

But animal-hoarding tendencies among farmers also have to do with how animals are used in lieu of a rural banking system.

“This is their bank account,” says Abdullah. To withdraw money, they sell. Otherwise, the reproducing animals represent a form of interest. “They are saying, ‘I am keeping this number of animals, so this is my wealth.’ ”

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