South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Thursday.

Pakistan’s Flood Crisis Could Become a Food Crisis

International aid is pouring in, but the local food insecurity would have global consequences.

Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
A woman gestures near a tent in Jaffarabad, Pakistan, on Sept. 3. Monsoon rains have unleashed powerful floods that have washed away crops and damaged or destroyed homes.
A woman gestures near a tent in Jaffarabad, Pakistan, on Sept. 3. Monsoon rains have unleashed powerful floods that have washed away crops and damaged or destroyed homes.
A woman gestures near a tent in Jaffarabad, Pakistan, on Sept. 3. Monsoon rains have unleashed powerful floods that have washed away crops and damaged or destroyed homes. BANARAS KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Pakistan’s ongoing flood crisis could intensify food insecurity, Bangladesh’s prime minister meets her Indian counterpart in New Delhi, and some girls’ schools reopen in Afghanistan.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Pakistan’s ongoing flood crisis could intensify food insecurity, Bangladesh’s prime minister meets her Indian counterpart in New Delhi, and some girls’ schools reopen in Afghanistan.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Food Crisis Looms in Pakistan

Pakistan continues to suffer from catastrophic flooding. Around one-third of the country remains underwater, and most of the 33 million people affected by the disaster have yet to receive assistance. But the crisis could still get worse: On Tuesday, the retaining wall of Pakistan’s largest lake gave way under rising water levels, imperiling communities downstream. More monsoon rains are expected in the coming weeks.

International aid is pouring into Pakistan, and a newly established humanitarian air corridor has facilitated the arrival of emergency relief. More than a dozen countries have pledged assistance. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres—who has described the floods as a “monsoon on steroids”—will visit Pakistan on Friday to survey the damage. The immediate focus is on providing food, clean water, and shelter. Pakistani officials and international donors are also working to address public health challenges.

However, another disaster with direct global implications looms: a major food crisis. With crops, livestock, and agricultural land damaged or destroyed, Pakistan will struggle to feed itself and the countries that depend on its food exports. This risks exacerbating the global food market crunch triggered by coronavirus pandemic supply chain shocks and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

According to preliminary estimates, 65 percent of Pakistan’s main food crops—including 70 percent of its rice—have been swept away during the floods, and 3 million livestock have died. Pakistan’s planning minister says 45 percent of agricultural land is now destroyed. Such territory is precious in the best of times: Of Pakistan’s total land area, less than 40 percent is arable, and land erosion inflicts heavy damage on agricultural land.

Wheat is Pakistan’s top food crop, and the annual planting season begins soon. More than 90 percent of Pakistani households are wheat consumers. But with so much land destroyed or damaged, the wheat harvest could be jeopardized; some farmers fear their land won’t be usable within the next three months. Pakistan will likely have to import more food, which could raise costs and worsen the country’s balance of payments crisis. Before the floods, food inflation was at 26 percent, and in recent days some costs have surged by as much as 500 percent.

These high costs will be felt heavily in cities, which are home to large poor and working-class populations. If history is any guide, it could lead to urban unrest. It will manifest differently in rural areas, which are home to around two-thirds of Pakistan’s population. Rural land ownership is wildly unequal, and most residents own little or no land, which compounds food insecurity. In the longer term, this could exacerbate a public health challenge: stunting in children attributed to poor nutrition.

A food crisis in Pakistan would have international implications. The country is the fourth-largest global rice exporter, with buyers from China to sub-Saharan Africa. Any dramatic drop in exports will only add to global food insecurity fueled by reduced wheat exports from Ukraine, although high global rice stocks could soften the blow. Pakistan also exports many non-food crops, especially cotton.

If the flood waters recede soon enough, Pakistan can still avoid a worst-case scenario, salvaging some agricultural land. Most of Pakistan’s wheat and rice crops grow in Punjab province, which wasn’t hit as hard by the floods. But given the sheer scale of the flooding, the most significant damage is already done. The international donor community is already grappling with acute crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine, and donor fatigue remains a concern for Pakistan. The global implications of the flood crisis underscore the importance of global support to preempt another disaster.


FP LIVE: Sign up to watch a live 30-minute discussion with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday, Sept. 15, at 9 a.m. EDT about the war in Ukraine and how NATO member states can exert pressure on Russia.


What We’re Following

Bangladesh’s prime minister visits New Delhi. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi this week and met with her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. The visit produced seven new agreements in such areas as railways and nuclear energy. In their public remarks, the two leaders emphasized the importance of trade and connectivity, and Modi said the countries will soon begin talks on a new comprehensive economic partnership.

India and Bangladesh have a cordial relationship. India backed the fighters who eventually created the new state of Bangladesh in 1971, and strong ties have endured since. However, Dhaka has taken issue with some of the Modi government’s Hindu nationalist policies, including a new immigration law that provides fast-track citizenship options for religious minorities who immigrate from neighboring states but excludes Muslims.

When Modi visited Dhaka last year to mark Bangladesh’s 50th independence anniversary, Islamist hard-liners staged violent protests. The ongoing failure to conclude a long-drafted water-sharing accord governing the Teesta River—largely because of resistance from India’s West Bengal state government—has also caused tension. Nonetheless, Modi wants to strengthen ties with Bangladesh as part of his government’s Neighborhood First policy and to secure connectivity arrangements with neighbors besides Pakistan.

Islamic State-Khorasan attacks Russian Embassy. The Islamic State-Khorasan, which operates in Afghanistan, has claimed responsibility an attack outside the Russian Embassy in Kabul on Monday. A suicide bomber detonated explosives near the entrance, killing six people, including two embassy staffers. It is the first known attack on any foreign diplomatic facility in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over last year.

The attack is an embarrassment for the Taliban, whose leaders have boasted about restoring security since seizing power. For the small number of countries with a diplomatic presence in Taliban-led Afghanistan—including China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and most recently India—the assault may prompt concerns about the safety of their personnel. Russia hasn’t recognized the Taliban regime, but it may be inclined to formalize relations with the Taliban if it gets assurances about security concerns. The attack on Moscow’s embassy will only deepen those concerns.

India’s new aircraft carrier. India recently unveiled the INS Vikrant, its first domestically produced aircraft carrier, which is significant for three reasons. First, it showcases India’s naval power when it has struggled to keep up with China’s naval modernization. Second, it pushes back against criticism from Washington that New Delhi’s indigenous defense production system is inefficient. Finally, the INS Vikrant demonstrates the strategic importance of India’s more robust sea power as Beijing expands its own naval presence in its backyard.

Despite being produced in India, the new aircraft carrier does contain components imported from key defense partners, including France, Israel, Russia, and the United States.


Under the Radar

Officials in Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan revealed this week that girls’ high schools have reopened in recent days. Older girls’ schools have been shuttered since the Taliban takeover, and the group broke its promise to reopen the schools in March.

Curiously, a spokesperson for the province’s education department said that the department wasn’t informed of the reopenings in advance and that a letter had been sent to the national education minister seeking more information.

Officials in Kabul have professed ignorance as well. A top Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, said on Tuesday he didn’t know why the schools reopened or who authorized the change. One possible explanation is that the Haqqani network, a brutal faction of the Taliban, is behind the move. Paktia is a historical stronghold group, whose leaders reportedly support reopening all girls’ schools.

One Haqqani network leader, Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, could have pushed the province to reopen the schools in defiance of Taliban leadership. If so, the move could deepen the fissures that have emerged within the Taliban in recent months.


This Week’s Most Read

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International Relations Theory Suggests Great-Power War Is Coming By Matthew Kroenig


Regional Voices

Journalist Aadil Brar writes in the Print about the Indian public’s heightened interest in China amid intensifying strategic competition. “Finding clues for developments in satellite imagery while shifting through social media to look for what the Chinese state media has said on the border dispute has become a full-time activity for many,” he writes.

A Daily Mirror editorial discusses a recent major victory by the Sri Lankan national cricket team, which defeated a heavily favored Indian squad—and how it momentarily distracted the country’s public from its many travails. “Rabble rousing anger and hatred against ruling elites … gave way to exuberant and loud cheers which filled the air,” it says.

In the Kathmandu Post, commentator Deepak Thapa laments the excesses of VIP culture in Nepal and the inconveniences it imposes on the general public: “To even conceive of the heads of our state adopting the ways of the bicycling monarchies of Scandinavia and the Netherlands would not only be idealistic but naïve as well.”

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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