Pakistan floods: where is the government?

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Pakistan’s worst-ever floods have not only killed more than 2,000 people and affected an estimated 20 million others, they have also exposed government incompetence and its complete lack of concern for the people. In fact, there appears to be no government at all, if one ignores the vacuous statements issued by hypocritical politicians in Islamabad repeating the now familiar mantra in front of television cameras, “the government is doing its best” and appeals to the “international community” for help. Amid the massive deluge, President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, ministers and members of the National Assembly (MNA) have indulged in obscene theatrics. In several instances, ministers and MNAs have staged fake relief camps to be seen on TV distributing food among the needy. These camps folded the moment the minister or MNA left the scene.

Zardari has been equally callous, his already low standing falling many notches down. He left the country on August 2 on a tour of France and England. The overwhelming majority of people questioned the wisdom of the visits at a time when the country was faced with such a catastrophe. Zardari as well as his spokesmen said he was not the chief executive; the prime minister was dealing with the situation. In any case, his presence in the country would not have made much difference. This is true; he is irrelevant. Many people wished he would stay away in France or England. He is a bad omen; if he were to go, his dark shadow would be lifted from Pakistan.

Zardari owns a huge property in France where his father Hakim Ali Zardari now lives. In England, he reportedly purchased a property in Hyde Park, London’s prestigious district, for £140 million. This was believed to be the real purpose of his visit. He stayed in a hotel suite at $7,000 per night accompanied by his son Bilawal and one of his daughters. He was also accompanied by hordes of hangers-on. He traveled in an executive jet and privately-hired limousines costing millions of dollars to Pakistan’s treasury. In England, he indulged in politicking by addressing a party rally in Birmingham where one party member was so incensed by his callousness that he threw a shoe at him. Pakistani television stations such as GEO, and newspapers like Jang, that reported the incident were then attacked by People’s Party hooligans for daring to do so.

While Pakistani politicians have made urgent appeals for outside help, they themselves have done little. Almost all politicians are billionaires. Zardari himself is worth several billion dollars. He has reportedly contributed $2 million but the money has been deposited in Bakhtawar Fund, set up under his daughter’s name. How this money will be used is open to question. Seasoned observers believe the money will be utilized for political purposes rather than providing relief to the people. Besides, it is an attempt to promote his daughter, in addition to his still green son, Bilawal, as a future leader. Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, also a billionaire, has contributed Rs 10 million. Other millionaire politicians have been equally stingy and have failed to participate in relief efforts or provide a healing touch.

Relief work has been left almost entirely to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are doing a superb job. A number of leading organizations with a proven track record are working round the clock in Pakistan. These include Islamic Relief, Peshawar Medical College, National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) and Health, Education and Literacy Promotion in Pakistan (HELPP). Peshawar Medical College personnel together with HELPP have been particularly active, being familiar with the area, especially in northwest Pakistan that now carries the ridiculous name, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Their volunteers go to the affected villages handing out tokens to people asking them to come to the nearest point accessible by trucks. The following day, relief trucks with pre-packaged food boxes arrive and deliver them to the people. The tokens are collected for distribution by volunteers in other affected areas. These operations are occurring round the clock.

Swollen waters in the Indus, Swat and Kabul rivers that devastated the northern regions of Pakistan have also affected southern Punjab and Sind provinces. Not only have rivers and canals spilled over banks, in many instances, politics have affected decisions about which areas to flood. For instance, many villages in Sind and Baluchistan were flooded in order to divert water from lands owned by feudal lords. Former Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali bitterly complained about his ancestral home in Baluchistan being inundated with flood waters in order to save the lands of feudal lords in Punjab and Sind. Such decisions will have far reaching implications for the future.

There is a direct link between climate change and floods. Many scientists have repeatedly stressed this. Pakistan is not immune from such effects and there have been frequent floods but the ferocity of this year’s floods is unmatched. To get an idea of its intensity, the highest recorded rainfall in Pakistan was in July 1956 when 312 millimetres of rain fell in the entire month. In the recent floods, 313 millimetres of rain fell only in one day –” July 30. And it has been raining virtually everyday since.

Pakistan’s vast dam and canal network spread throughout the country has also exacerbated the problem. Decisions are made not necessarily to help the country; they are influenced by how they will benefit the large landowners and industrialists. The feudal lords of Sind and Punjab are the principal beneficiaries of such construction. Canals are dug to irrigate their lands. Similarly, infrastructure repair and emergency relief are deliberately distorted to preserve the interests of the landed elite rather than reinforce flood prevention mechanisms. The flooding in Punjab and Sind was not the result of rain –” at least not directly –” but rather the fact that no large flood control mechanisms were built into the irrigation network. In the recent floods, canals and dykes were deliberately breached at various points flooding villages to save the vast tracts of lands of the feudal lords.

The havoc caused by the floods is not temporary; there are long-term consequences as well. Grain storage depots as well as standing crops have been destroyed. Food prices have skyrocketed with some areas witnessing four-fold increases. Given the already grim situation as a result of the collapse of infrastructure –” in the Khyber-Pakhtukhwa Province, for instance, 80% of all the bridges have been destroyed –” there are fears of widespread famine. Already cases of cholera and water-borne diseases have been recorded. Wells, the primary source of water for most people in the rural areas, have been contaminated. This has exacerbated the already grim situation. Millions of people have been turned into refugees without finding shelter anywhere. In the lower parts of Punjab, some tents have been provided but people are forced to stay in the sweltering heat, again without adequate food or water.

Several refineries have also been shut down because of flooding, adding to the already desperate energy situation in the country. People in some parts of Pakistan experience power outages lasting 12 to 14 hours; these have now increased to 18 hours per day.

Despite the catastrophic floods and desperate appeals for help from the government of Pakistan as well as the United Nations, international aid has been slow in coming. There is reluctance due to a lack of trust in the Pakistani government. Even so, the international response has been measly. The US claims to be an ally of Pakistan but while it has spent $1 trillion in waging war in Afghanistan that has also cost Pakistan an estimated $40 billion, it has pledged only $71 million for the flood victims. The UN appeal for $461 million in immediate emergency aid has only brought in $150 million. Contrast this with the $1-billion in aid offered for earthquake relief in Haiti, or $13-billion given in aid to India after the December 2004 tsunami.

While help is slow in coming, those in Pakistan that want to help are being hampered by allegations that they are linked with “extremist” groups. The so-called international community is not coming forward, the Pakistani government is non-existent and in any case, it is run by callous feudal lords who are more concerned about protecting their lands rather than saving lives, and people are being warned about the spread of militancy. When people are desperate for food and water, they will take it regardless of the source. It is unacceptable for mass murderers and thieves to tell desperately poor and hungry people not to take help from certain types of people or groups. Their survival is at stake.

The people of Pakistan are caught between several untenable and disastrous situations over which they have no control: the war in Afghanistan that has spilled over into Pakistan causing large numbers of civilian deaths; a coterie of corrupt and greedy politicians who are wrecking the country’s economy, and an overbearing US that continues to warn Pakistan not to slacken in the war on terror while doing little to help the millions of afflicted people. People have not missed the point that while it has been quick to attack and kill its own people the Pakistan military’s response to the rescue effort has been less than satisfactory.

In the absence of substantial international aid, a virtually bankrupt Pakistan has been forced to seek loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Its foreign debt of $55 billion will now increase many billions of dollars more, further curtailing its ability to provide adequate help to the people or invest in development efforts. The loss from floods is estimated at $7 to $10 billion. It will be virtually impossible to get such a huge sum, setting the country back many decades and creating even more doubts about its viability.

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