Down the River: What Is To Be Done?
On Friday, Sept 3, a boy stands outside a house destroyed by flood waters that swept through Mehmood Kot a month ago. Residents of Mehmood Kot have been waiting a month for relief aid, which they say they have not received. (REUTERS/Chris Allbritton)
After three days traveling the flood path down the Indus River Valley, from Nowshera in the northwest down to Multan and to the confluence of the Indus and Pakistan’s other major rivers, it’s clear the devastation is as great as everyone feared.
A month ago, angry flood waters scoured clean the land in some places, leaving only muddy bumps and piles of rubbish where villages once stood. Stagnant waters still stand in the south, breeding mosquitoes, disease and preventing the planting of crops.
Some 17 million people were affected, 6 million made homeless and 10 million are in immediate need of humanitarian aid. More than 100,000 women are due to give birth in horrible, unsanitary conditions in the next 30 days. Tens of thousands of children are at risk of acute diarrhoea, cholera and malaria.
But today, a month later, the worst damage, I think, is the damage Pakistanis have done to one another.
In Peshawar, international aid is being stolen and sold in the street markets. Bandits from Dera Ghazi Khan, separated from Punjab by the mighty Indus, are raiding abandoned villages and stealing whatever they can carry, from jewellery to juicers. And in at least one case, villages and areas that weren’t at risk were flooded because rich landowners persuaded local authorities to divert flood waters away from a posh game preserve.
After three days on the road and the river, these stories all became numbingly similar: “The government hasn’t helped us; no one has come; we need money to rebuild.” Over and over and over. How is it that a month after the worst natural disaster in Pakistan’s history are so many people still waiting for help?
One lawmaker we spoke with, MP Hina Rabbani Khar, who represents the area around Multan, said, “Tell me who is ready to deal with the disaster like this. We all saw what happened with Katrina in the United States. … Here you are looking at a slow-moving disaster, literally inching forward, through the length of your country.”
What she doesn’t seem to realise is that Katrina was a massive, monumental failure by the United States government. New Orleans has still not recovered, mainly because of the same issues affecting Pakistan’s flooded regions: neglect, incompetence and the poverty of its inhabitants, whose voices are rarely heard by politicians.
So, yes, Pakistan’s floods are just like Katrina — they caught a government unprepared and unable to perform its most basic function: caring for its citizens in times of crisis.
The ruling Pakistan People’s Party is, I think, unaware of the depths of the anger such that we encountered on our three-day trek from Nowshera to Multan. Not one person we spoke with had anything good to say about the government or their parliament representatives. Any goodwill generated is flowing to the army and the Islamist groups, such as Faleh-e-Insaniyat, the public face of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is blacklisted by the U.S. government for its alleged ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba.
So what is to be done? As Spencer Ackerman writes on Wired magazine’s blog Danger Room, “A month after the Haiti earthquake, the U.S. government had over 20,000 troops on the ground, $450 million in assistance money earmarked, and an innovative web-based system to let troops and aid workers collaborate like never before.” Currently the U.S. has earmarked $200 million in aid for Pakistan, a far larger country of 170 million people and the most strategic ally in America’s war against al Qaeda.
No one is suggesting the U.S. should put troops on the ground in Pakistan, especially Pakistanis, who have a prickly relationship with the United States. But stepping up aid efforts, pressing more heavy-lift helicopters into service and sharing information with aid groups and the Pakistani government would be a good start. Crowd-sourcing flooding reports via SMS isn’t going to cut it.
But the Pakistani government needs to step up, too. Parliamentarians need to get out to their districts more and actually listen to what the people need. It’s not aid that flood victims want, so much as jobs and a little bit of starter money to get their houses rebuilt. The government should act as it is seized by this crisis and not play politics over various committees, boards and commissions. It should also probably start promoting its own efforts to deliver aid; it’s relying on the army and Islamist groups because they have the distribution networks. But they are the ones who then go on to get the credit rather than the civilian government.
Most of all, it could learn from its people. I’ve never seen more resilience in the face of catastrophe than the poor victims of the floods in Nowshera, Bhakkar and Multan. Rather than focus on their differences, these people are putting up with camp life, violations of parda (the practice of sequestering women away from any men they’re not related to), and grievously unhealthy and unsanitary conditions. All in the heat of August. The much-feared “social unrest” brought on by lack of aid and government help has yet to materialise.
Perhaps moving forward, the commentator SZaman88 said it best:
It is so unfortunate that millions are suffering; however, these floods have also provided us opportunity to review the way we behave and treat each other. We need to restructure our lives and the way we behave; otherwise our hostile behaviors would push us further towards self destruction.