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Pakistan's beloved mangoes are at risk as climate change shrinks harvest

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Pakistan's summers are hot, like brutally hot. But they're eagerly anticipated because summer is the season for what Pakistanis call the king of fruit - mangoes. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Rawalpindi.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: It's summertime, and teenagers do what they do in summer - whizzing around on rides in an amusement park.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMUSEMENT PARK RIDE HISSING)

HADID: In a quieter corner of this park called Joyland, another, more traditional summer ritual is about to happen - a mango festival. Workers hoist up bunting and balloons around a table piled with yellow mangoes. Imtiyaz Fazel arrives with his son.

So tell me. What is a mango festival?

IMTIYAZ FAZEL: In summer season, we grow a lot of mangoes. We arrange different festival around the fruit to celebrate our culture and bring people together.

HADID: American mangoes tend to be red and firm. In Pakistan, like much of South Asia, there's dizzying varieties, from tiny green ones to blushing reds and juicy yellows.

FAZEL: My favorite is white chaunsa. It has a very unique taste.

HADID: The chaunsa variety has a floral aroma. They're custardy, sweet and drippy. Fazel prefers eating them in private so nobody can see the mess.

FAZEL: I just peel it and just suck it.

HADID: And you just let the juice run down?

FAZEL: Run down. And I don't wear my shirt when I am eating mangoes (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

HADID: Across town, there's a road lined with smoothie bars. They're adorned with fruits like golden peaches, tart apples and sugary bananas. They may as well rot. Vendor Sajid Rehman says customers this evening have only asked for one thing.

SAJID REHMAN: (Through interpreter) All the fruits, mango is the hot favorite.

HADID: Rehman throws a cut up mango into the blender with a heap of sugar, pours in milk, adds crushed ice.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDER SPINNING)

HADID: In Pakistan, mangoes are everywhere. Sweet and sour ones are celebrated in nursery rhymes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KHATTA MEETHA AAM")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: They're in party songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT MANGO CHUTNEY SAUCE")

MEESHA SHAFI: (Singing) Hot mango chutney sauce, (singing non-English language) lip gloss. Hot mango chutney sauce...

HADID: They star in one of Pakistan's best-known novels called "A Case of Exploding Mangoes." And for immigrant families, Pakistani mangoes are a source of nostalgia and pride.

AHMED ALI AKBAR: So the first Pakistani mangoes I had in America were everything my mother said that they would be.

HADID: Podcaster Ahmed Ali Akbar won a James Beard Award for a piece he wrote on Pakistani mangoes in America.

AKBAR: They smell like flowers. They were so sweet.

HADID: They're expensive in the states and tricky to find. But Akbar says Pakistani Americans will spend hundreds of dollars on them.

AKBAR: And I think it's because the mango is more than just a mango. It's, like, so much better than something we have in America. It's something that Pakistan truly, objectively does better.

HADID: But this year, brutal heat waves and water shortages in spring caused Pakistan's mango harvest to shrink. There's no conclusive data yet, but one federal official says it shrunk by around 40%. As climate change makes extreme weather events more frequent, growers say the king of fruit is in trouble. And Pakistan's love affair with mangoes might become more about nostalgia for the past rather than an eagerly awaited joy in the summer. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Rawalpindi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.