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‘Monsoon on Steroids’ Destroys Nearly Half of Pakistan’s Cotton

Devastating monsoon floods in Pakistan have flushed away 45 percent of its cotton crops, dealing another blow to a country already standing at the financial precipice, minister for planning Ahsan Iqbal told Reuters Tuesday.

Capping three months of torrential rainfall, the unprecedented floodwaters have plunged one-third of the South Asian nation underwater, killing more than 1,100 people and destroying a million homes to date. At least 33 million people, or 15 percent of Pakistan’s population, are impacted by the damage, which early estimates place at over $10 billion of building, infrastructure, agricultural and livestock loss.

“I think it is going to be huge,” Iqbal said. “So far, [a] very early, preliminary estimate is that it is big; it is higher than $10 billion. People have actually lost their complete livelihood.”

Though cotton production has faced a steady decline in Pakistan, mostly because of government incentives that have pushed farmers to switch to sugarcane or rice, it’s still an important cash crop and a lifeline for the textile industry, which makes up more than 60 percent of the country’s exports.

Pakistan remains the world’s fifth-largest producer of cotton, exporting $3.4 billion worth of cotton in 2021 and contributing roughly 6 percent of the global supply, according to United Nations Comtrade data. It’s also the second-largest producer of Better Cotton after India, feeding the sustainable cotton needs of major apparel brands such as Gap, H&M and Zara. Altogether, an estimated 1.5 million farmers cultivate cotton, contributing to 0.6 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product. Most of it is concentrated in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, where the floodwaters are at their highest.

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Soorty, which launched an organic cotton initiative in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund in Pakistan in the southwestern province of Balochistan last April, is thankful that its farms have managed to escape unscathed. Spread across 7,000 acres of land, the project aims to produce more than 17,000 metric tons of seed cotton and 6,000 metric tons of cotton lint over the next four years.

Ebru Debbag, the denim manufacturer’s executive director of global sales and marketing, told Sourcing Journal that the project has become “more important” in light of circumstances. “I am informed that there is still an ongoing field evaluation being done in Pakistan to determine the total impact,” she said, estimating that as much as 70 percent of the nation’s cotton crop could be wiped out.

Pakistan is living through a “serious climate catastrophe, one of the hardest in a decade,” Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister, said in a video posted on Twitter over the weekend. “We are at the moment at the ground zero of the frontline of extreme weather events in an unrelenting cascade of heatwaves, forest fires, flash floods, multiple glacial lake outbursts, flood events and now the monster monsoon of the decade is wreaking nonstop havoc through the country.”

It was only in March and April that Pakistan was in the grips of a heatwave and drought. Today, the worst-affected parts of the country are receiving up to 400 percent more rainfall than the 30-year average.

The cash-strapped country has managed to lock in a $1.1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to avert a Sri Lanka-like default this year after economic and debt payments from skyrocketing energy costs depleted its foreign-exchange coffers, but experts warn that its financial situation will only worsen in the face of the historic deluge.

Meanwhile, as inflation continues to spiral past 40 percent from a year earlier, everyday Pakistanis have been grappling with exponential increases in the prices of food, fuel, medicine and other necessities.

“I have seen electricity bills of workers that are equal to their wages,” Khalid Mahmood, director of the Labour Education Foundation, a workers’ rights group based in Lahore, told Sourcing Journal. “How can workers survive in this situation?”

The homes of workers in the cotton-growing areas of Sindh and South Punjab are “mostly destroyed,” he added, and the cost of the damage will fall largely on their shoulders. While factories in manufacturing hubs like Faisalabad, Karachi, Lahore and Sialkot have remained intact, Mahmood expects the shortage of cotton to have a knock-on effect. “The workers are going to suffer because of this,” he said. “There may be huge job losses.”

On Tuesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued an urgent request for $160 million in emergency aid. Pakistan, he said, is “awash in suffering” as it faces a “monsoon on steroids” due to the “relentless impact of epochal levels of rain and flooding.”

“Millions are homeless, schools and those facilities have been destroyed, livelihoods are shattered, critical infrastructure wiped out and people’s hopes and dreams have washed away,” he said in a video. “Dear friends, South Asia is one of the world’s global climate crisis hotspots. People living in these hotspots are 15 times more likely to die from climate impacts. “As we continue to see more and more extreme weather events around the world, it is outrageous that climate action is being put on the back burner, putting all of us, everywhere, in growing danger.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development revealed on the same day that the United States will provide $30 million through USAID. “The United States is deeply saddened by the devastating loss of life and livelihoods throughout Pakistan,” it said. “We stand with Pakistan during this difficult time.”

The climate threat to cotton production will only continue to mount, an analysis of climate risks to global cotton production said last year. Under a worst-case scenario, all cotton-growing regions will face increased risk from at least one climate hazard by 2040, according to climate-risk firm Acclimatise, a partner of Forum for the Future’s Cotton 2040 platform for sustainably grown cotton.

The study estimated that roughly half of all cotton will experience higher exposure to drought, while 60 percent will be increasingly threatened by harmful wind speeds. At least three-quarters of cotton-growing regions will face an expanding risk of cotton exposure to heat stress, and all of them will have to prepare for a heightened incidence of wildfires. The worst-effected regions, the report said, are likely to be northwestern Africa, including northern Sudan and Egypt, and western and southern Asia.

“This analysis is a wake-up call for the cotton industry, on which much of the apparel sector is currently hugely reliant,” Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, said at the time. “In order to build resilience for a highly disrupted and uncertain future, the widespread shifts to sustainable forms of cotton production must be bolstered by ambitious and aligned action to reduce carbon emissions while also preparing the industry to operate in a very different world.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of the story misstated that Soorty’s organic cotton project lost 70 percent of its crops. The company was referring to the whole of Pakistan. Its own fields have survived.