Unusually heavy monsoon rains and rapidly melting glaciers following a severe heat wave this year has led to historic flooding in Pakistan. In August, the country’s government declared a state of emergency and by the end of that month a third of the country was underwater. Beyond the tragic loss of human life, there has been mass displacement of people and economic damages are estimated to be beyond USD 40 billion. Agriculture is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, such as floods, enduring both short and long-term consequences, such as harvest and livestock losses, disease outbreaks and the destruction of rural infrastructure and irrigation systems.
Working together, the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have been in close consultation with Pakistan’s government, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, and leading national agriculture and veterinarian institutes to develop an emergency support package to assist the country in applying nuclear science to better understand the flood’s impact on soils, crops and the potential spread of animal and zoonotic diseases. The package consists of scientific equipment, reagents and training.
“The flooding in Pakistan is just the latest impact of unmitigated climate change, and while it’s now too late to stop these floods, it’s not too late to stop the situation from getting worse,” said Lee Kheng Heng, Head of the Soil and Water Management and Crop Nutrition Section of the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. The IAEA, through its technical cooperation programme, has been coordinating the delivery of equipment to measure the physical and chemical properties of the flooded soils such as pH, electrical conductivity and nutrient levels in agricultural soils, while the FAO/IAEA Joint Centre is providing technical expertise to use the equipment.
Floods are impacting farmers’ ability to sow their seeds and prepare the lands for the coming seasons. “Flood waters carry nutrients and sediments, that when deposited on flood plains, can enhance soil fertility. It can also wash them away downstream,” Heng said. “The poor soil aeration in flooded soils can make many soil and plant changes that can adversely influence growth. It’s not yet clear how the Pakistani farmlands will be once the flooding resides. With nuclear techniques, local experts can measure the situation and look to ways to improve its fertility.”
Pakistan has a long history of working closely with the IAEA. Its Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology has since 1972 been responsible for the introduction of many food and cash crops using plant mutation breeding – a nuclear technique where seed irradiation helps create spontaneous genetic variations for more productive and climate-resilient crops. Through decades of training and partnerships, the country has also developed expertise in measuring soil fertility, but it lacks equipment for dealing with a crisis of this scale.
The risk of animal diseases
The crisis has also affected the care of livestock, displaced and made homeless by the flooding. Carla Bravo de Rueda, an FAO/IAEA Animal Health Technical Officer highlighted the impact this could have on the spread of animal and zoonotic diseases: “Animal movement and the increase of contact between mixed animal populations represent a risk for the transmission of animal and zoonotic diseases,” she said. “Veterinarian laboratories and authorities need greater capabilities to diagnose and control animal diseases identifying outbreaks before they get out of control.”
The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre are sending molecular and serological diagnostic tools to Pakistan to test for diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), lumpy skin disease (LSD) and Peste des petits ruminants (PPR) – all of which are pre-existing endemic risks in the country. Additionally, the organizations are evaluating a strategy with the Pakistani veterinarian authorities for possible vaccination of some animals to protect them from diseases, thereby preventing future outbreaks.
“We’re in a situation where immune challenged animals could be exposed to life-threatening diseases,” explained Bravo de Rueda. “At the same time, the shelters for these animals are flooded and the lands from which they eat are below water level. This animal crisis could become another human crisis as people depend on their livestock for food and income.”
Through a technical cooperation project with Pakistan in agriculture, which began this year and will run until 2025, the IAEA will continue providing support to the country in enhancing its human and technical capacity in ensuring food security, including food safety and climate resilience in the mid-to-long term.
“The international community should stand in solidarity in face of such a climate-change driven catastrophe,” said Jane Gerardo-Abaya, Director of Asia and the Pacific Division in the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation Department. She explained that the IAEA has a strong partnership with the Pakistan government and is now ramping up its rapid recovery and resilience-building support through its technical cooperation programme and the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre.