Floods From Pakistan to Korea May Strain Aid as Food Costs Soar

Local residents scramble to recover water bottles
Local residents scramble to recover water bottles dropped from a Pakistan Air force helicopter in Nowshera, Pakistan. Photographer: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Floods sweeping through a swath of Asia from Pakistan to North Korea have killed thousands, left millions homeless and may stretch aid efforts as crops are destroyed at a time of soaring wheat prices.

At least 1.8 million people urgently need food supplies in Pakistan after the deadliest floods in 80 years, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. In North Korea, rains triggered landslides that blocked railways, destroyed homes and buried crops, piling on hardship for a country that already needs aid to feed its 24 million people. Floods in China have killed at least 1,072 people this year, affecting 9.7 million hectares of farmland, according to the government.

Damage to crops and food stores may hinder aid to flood victims and other vulnerable groups in the region and raise concerns of a repeat of the 2008 food crisis, when record prices sparked protests from Haiti to the Philippines. Wheat prices rallied to the highest in almost two years today as a drought prompted Russia to ban exports and floods hit farms in Canada, the world’s No.2 supplier of the grain last year.

“Mother-nature is playing a very evil hand,” Peter McGuire, managing director at CWA Global Markets Pty. said in a phone interview from Sydney today. “It’s always the poor that suffer.”

More than 1,500 people have died in Pakistan’s northwest and four million people are stranded after floods that first struck July 22. Waters demolished homes and bridges and swept away major roads across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, and crops across the nation were damaged. Five percent of the nation’s rice crop has been damaged, the Rice Exporters Association said.

Aid Hampered

Communication networks have been disrupted and rains are hampering relief efforts, according to Unicef. Skin and respiratory infections and diarrhea are rising among displaced people, Doctors Without Borders said yesterday.

More heavy rains are forecast in Pakistan over the weekend, the weather office said today by telephone from Islamabad.

Floodwaters caused “significant damage” to food stocks of the UN World Food Programme in Pakistan, hurting supplies for aid programs in the South Asian nation and across the border in Afghanistan, the agency said in a statement Aug. 1.

In Asia, Afghanistan and North Korea are the most susceptible to shortages of food, the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a July report. “Afghanistan and North Korea are the region’s most vulnerable countries,” the report titled “Food Security Assessment, 2010-20,” said.

About 62 percent of the hungry people in the world are in the Asia Pacific and about a fourth are in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The number of people who are hungry surged to 1.02 billion in 2009, the highest since 1970, the agency said.

North Korea

In North Korea thousands of homes, public buildings and factories were ruined and about 14,859 hectares of farmland “submerged, buried or washed away,” the nation’s state-run Korea Central News Agency reported yesterday.

Flooding in the 1990s triggered a famine in the country that may have killed as many as 2 million people, according to a 1999 study by the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace. North Korea faces a shortfall of about 1 million tons of rice a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Their food shortages are serious, even without any natural disasters,” said Jiang Yuechun, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies. “Now, with the threat from floods, their condition is truly worrying.”

North Korea hasn’t requested assistance from the World Food Programme, Marcus Prior, a Bangkok-based spokesman for the UN agency, said today by e-mail. The WFP “stands ready with emergency supplies,” he said.

Unprecedented Rain

An unprecedented amount of rain had already inundated the Yalu and Tumen rivers bordering China, with more forecast for the region, Xinhua News Agency reported late yesterday, citing an official in the border city of Dandong.

China’s worst floods in more than a decade may cut production of rice and pork in the largest producer, boosting prices and hampering government efforts to keep inflation under 3 percent. Rice output may fall 5 percent to 7 percent, Li Qiang, managing director at Shanghai JC Intelligence Co., said this week.

China evacuated about 18,000 villagers in northeastern Jilin province as forecasts for more rain spurred concern that the Songhua river may overflow its banks. The Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture has suffered the worst floods in a hundred years this year, with nearly a quarter of its 2.18 million residents affected, Xinhua said, citing the local government.

Feast or Famine

As Asian governments grapple with too much rain, wheat-growing regions of Europe and Central Asia have the opposite problem.

Wheat has doubled in less than two months as drought slashed the harvest in Russia, the third-largest grower, prompting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ban exports yesterday. Dry weather in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the European Union has also buoyed prices. Rice, a staple for half the world, rallied 9 percent in July, its biggest monthly advance since October.

The UN FAO Food Price Index, which tracks global prices of meat, dairy, cereals, sugar, oils and fats around, rose to 165.5 in July, the highest since February, according to its website.

The surge in wheat prices may fuel another food crisis as early as the fourth quarter this year, as millers seek cheaper substitutes for livestock feeds, sending prices of corn higher, and dragging with it the cost of soybeans, said Franciscus Welirang, chairman of the Flour Mills Association in Indonesia, Asia’s biggest importer of wheat.

Another global food crisis “is what we worry about in the fourth quarter or first quarter of next year,” Welirang said.

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