© OxfamLand reform hampered by the fact that many politicians are also landowners
The floods that swept across vast tracts of land from July to September 2010 covered many fields, houses and roads in a sea of swirling water - but they also played a part in exposing the depth of existing poverty and deprivation in Pakistan.

"The malnutrition we are seeing is not new. It has nothing to do with the floods; it is just that we are seeing it now as people come into contact with medical teams," Shershah Syed, a gynaecologist who has devoted himself to caring for impoverished women requiring care during pregnancy and birth, told IRIN.

Some of the ways in which powerful feudal families - in many cases linked to the political and bureaucratic elite - acted to protect their own interests at the cost of ordinary villagers have been well documented. Feudal overlords have been accused, both in the southern Punjab and in Sindh Province of influencing decisions regarding the diversion of floodwater or the breach of over-flowing dams to protect their own land.

A judicial investigation continues into allegations that in other places protective dykes were breached by wealthy landowners to save their farms, while flooding those of impoverished - and powerless - villagers.

The more subtle ways in which Pakistan's feudal system works against people, even in times when there is no natural disaster, are beginning to surface only now - in some cases as a result of surveys conducted to assess the plight of flood-affected people.

Vast estates belonging to feudal families stretch out across the country, sometimes covering hundreds of acres. According to the World Bank, about 2 percent of households control more than 45 percent of the total land area. Large farmers have also monopolized subsidies in water and agriculture - with the system in place contributing heavily to rural poverty, the Bank says.

Call for land reform

"In a country where about half the workforce is engaged in agriculture, the key to improving lives is an end of feudalism by implementing effective land reforms. No one should own more than 12 acres [4.86 hectares] of agriculture land," Farooq Tariq, spokesman for the Labour Party of Pakistan, told IRIN.

"Throughout Pakistan, millions of peasants are working on land they do not own, giving between half and two-thirds of their crops to landlords. The poor peasants and landless agricultural workers are exploited in many ways. Workers often end up tied to the land, after taking a loan from a landowner and offering to pay it back by working. Sometimes whole families end up in this type of debt bondage, working to pay off a loan on which the interest keeps accumulating. This system is one of the many ways that ties the peasants to absolute poverty," he said.

Historically speaking, land reform has been held back by the fact that many parliamentarians are themselves big landowners, and as such are unwilling to initiate a re-division of land.

Nutritional crisis

The impact of feudalism, and the poverty it gives rise to, is poorly documented, but six months after the most devastating floods in the country's history, with Sindh Province worst hit, a provincial government report based on a survey conducted with UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) support, has revealed a grave nutritional crisis. The survey has found a global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate of 23.1 percent in children aged 6-59 months in flood-affected areas of northern Sindh and 21.2 percent in southern Sindh - rates above the World Health Organization's 15 percent emergency threshold level.

A severe acute malnutrition (SAM) rate of 6.1 has also been uncovered in northern Sindh, with the Sindh government estimating about 90,000 under-five children are malnourished.

According to UNICEF, SAM is an advanced state of acute malnutrition. Children with SAM need immediate treatment and are 10 times more likely than healthy children to die before they reach their fifth birthday. The survey also found high levels of malnutrition among women.

Experts working in the field, however, believe this situation is a product of entrenched deprivation, rather than floods.

"The malnutrition [revealed by the survey] was not caused by floods but by poverty; the majority of IDPs [internally displaced persons] in camps are from the lowest quintile of poverty", Andro Shilakadze, a senior UNICEF field officer in Sindh, told IRIN.

"The women of Sindh have suffered like this for thousands of years due to the feudal system in the province, and of course the mother's health affects the child," said gynaecologist Syed, who has performed life-saving operations in the most primitive conditions across flood-hit parts of Sindh and also runs a flood-relief camp.

Women eat last

"It is simple actually. Women work hard in the fields and in their homes. They receive only what is left of the food after the rest of the family has eaten. Men are served first, then the children and then the women last of all," he added.

© ReliefWeb
"It has always been like this. We women eat last, because we are least important," Sumundri Bibi, an emaciated mother of six, told IRIN at a flood-relief camp in the southern Sindh town of Thatta.

"This is a patriarchal culture. Women suffer due to it," Syed said.

James King'ori, nutrition cluster coordinator for UNICEF, told IRIN from Islamabad: "Women, particularly of child-bearing age (15-49), have an increased nutritional requirement to not only maintain their body growth, enable daily chore undertaking but also to support pregnancy and breastfeeding of infants. Addressing poverty in a strategic manner to benefit women is key," he said.

But this seems unlikely to happen until there is a break from the system of uneven land ownership, and the exploitation that comes with it. "Ownership of land can quickly break the poverty cycle. We have seen examples of this in places where tenant farmers have taken control of land," Tariq said.

"I know nothing about land ownership - just that we struggle to feed our children, and eat less ourselves so they have more on their plates," Sumundri said.