“When the water came, we moved our women and children to high ground. Three of my daughters stayed behind to help the men pack up whatever belongings we could carry with us… within minutes, the current got too strong and the waters rose head high.” This is how a villager from Sardaryab, a village in northwest Pakistan, lost two of his daughters aged 16 and 17. He was only able to save his youngest daughter. “Their bodies were found three days later, dumped on the bank by receding waters about 6 kilometres down the river.”
Omar, another villager, describes the events in his village this way: “We could see the water rising across the entire area between my village and the river. At first we thought it was rain water, but it continued to rise,” he says. Everybody rushed to the nearby railway track which is on high ground. But Omar was slightly late.
“Three of our women were swept off their feet. We saved two of them, but the third, my brother’s wife, was lost. We found her body two days later.” (BBC, 5 August 2010)
This is the kind of story that Pakistani families who lost their loved ones or their home or what little belongings they had gathered over their entire lifetimes would tell you. Millions had to leave the land they had worked on to go to a supposedly safer place or a refugee camp.
The flood began in late July in mountainous northwest Pakistan when exceptionally heavy monsoon rains caused the upper reaches of the Indus river to burst out of its banks.
It is reported that at least 1,600 people have been killed. An estimated six million are homeless. Some 17-20 million of Pakistan’s 166 million people are said to have been directly affected, and 6 million are in urgent need of food. Tens of thousands of villages have been under water for days or even weeks and the process is still continuing. The rivers cutting through the middle of the country from north to south are beginning to recede as the surge empties into the Arabian sea, but it is expected to be another week or two before they return to normal – and even then, in some places floodwater will be trapped and remain for some time. (Map: bbc.co.uk/news/world-southasia-11128511)
These numbers alone are not enough to convey all the dimensions of the human catastrophe. What we have seen and heard is only the beginning for the disaster millions face. Livestock is an important source of income, but countless cattle have perished in the floods. By late August, about 14 percent of the country’s arable land was damaged, according to the UN World Food Programme. Even many people whose fields could be replanted have lost their grain stores, and now lack both food and seeds for the next crop after the monsoon. For a large percentage of those who survive the flood, surviving its aftermath will be no less of a challenge. The impact of this loss will be strongly felt by the Pakistani masses for years or even decades to come.
Dr Marie Lall says, “This was not one cataclysmic event, but one which grew over three weeks. The fact that 25 percent of the country was or is under water is not understood. The low numbers of dead, relatively speaking, mask the disaster on the ground. The crisis has destroyed crops, killed livestock and damaged homes and infrastructure. Food prices are through the roof and there won’t be a normal harvest. It will get worse. Farmers will starve.” (BBC, 21 August 2010)
It is reported that of at least 6 million people left homeless, less than 10 percent are in the camps set up in the provinces. The camps consists of tents for 6 to 7 people, without any sort of sanitation or health facilities. Another aspect of the disaster is waterborne diseases. The UN has said that millions of children in Pakistan are at risk. Sindh Province officials said that out of the millions displaced, a quarter are suffering from some sort of flood-related illness.
The lack of sanitation and the malnutrition that will follow the flood might well increase the number of victims for a some time to come.
Those who no longer have a home are living alongside elevated roads with the few belongings they might have saved. Cities such as Sukkur located on the banks of the Indus have become like large refugee camps as increasing numbers of people seek shelter there.
At the same time, people already living in camps for displaced persons, like the 40,000 Afghans refugees living in Azakhel, on the banks of the Kabul and Swat rivers in north-western Pakistan, have been forced to flee yet again.
Who is responsible?
What made the flood so ruthless and why have 20 million mainly poor Pakistanis had to suffer so much?
Without the annual monsoon rains, agriculture in much of Asia and South Asia would not be so productive. Yet monsoon floods are often deadly and destructive. This year the rains produced particularly dangerous flooding in China, Korea and the South Asian subcontinent.
Monsoons are caused by temperature differences between land and sea. During summer when it is hot, the flat terrain of Tibet warms up the surrounding air and the hot air rises, drawing in moist air from the sea. This moist air also warms up and rises. As it cools in the higher atmosphere, the moisture condenses into rain.
According to the BBC weather centre the existence “of more spiralling air in the upper atmosphere sucks in more moist air, causing larger clouds and more intense rainfall.” “This year’s kink meant more moist air than usual was sucked up. The effect passed in days, but the extra rain at the start of the season caused severe floods.” (BBC, 16 August 2010)
The Indus, almost 32,000 kilometres long, is one of the world’s greatest rivers. Its valley is one of the places where human beings first gave up their nomadic ways and began to raise livestock and crops. Today, it is home to 100 million people, who rely on the river for drinking water and irrigation. Flooding is no stranger to those whose families have lived here for centuries, but this year saw torrents unmatched in recent history.
A plundered country on a plundered planet
There is credible evidence that global warming could be responsible for these stronger floods. “Professor Martin Gibling of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, a river expert who has worked in the region, thinks that changes in the strength of the monsoon caused by climate change may be to blame. He explains: ‘Monsoon intensity is somewhat sensitive to the surface temperature of the Indian Ocean.’ During times of cooler climate, less moisture is picked up from the ocean, the monsoon weakens, and the Indus river flow is reduced.” (BBC Science and Environment, 13 August 2010) Today, sea temperatures are increasing.
Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of physics of the oceans at Potsdam University in Germany, argues that extreme rainfall events will become more frequent and intense in a warmer climate.
“For each degree Celsius of warming, 7 percent more water is available to rain down from saturated air masses. Drought risk also increases with warming: even where rainfall does not decline, increased evaporation dries out the soils.”
He warns that extreme weather-related events are already occurring after a global temperature rise of only 0.8 C. “With weak action, like that promised by governments in Copenhagen last December, we will be on course for 3-4 C of global warming. This is bound to outstrip the ability of many societies and ecosystems to adapt. And, with no action at all, the planet could even heat up by 5-7 C by the end of this century – and more thereafter. Knowingly marching down that road would be insane.” (Guardian, 16 August 2010)
But while global warming may be to blame for the worst-ever flood in Pakistan, it alone cannot be held responsible for so much human suffering.
There is also the question of how rivers are managed in order to prevent such disasters. For example, some rich countries reduce the risk of flood by building embankments as barriers along the vulnerable parts of rivers to reduce the chances of their bursting their banks in extreme floods. Such a system might or might not work for the Indus river, but today’s authorities in Pakistan (and India), like the British colonialists before independence in 1947, have done nothing serious to prevent such possible disasters. Basic facilities such as a system of dams to capture monsoon rains and glacial runoff are totally lacking. There is no flood warning system.
Lack of a proper drainage system or in most area any at all is another contributing factor. The Pakistani masses, especially in the poor areas, have to deal with water overflows even when there is only a couple of hours of heavy rain. In such cases the death of a dozen people is not unusual. The water often covers the streets and alleys for days or even weeks, providing conditions for the proliferation of insects, including malaria-bearing mosquitoes.
Further, the Indus is choked with sediment eroding off the Himalayas. Little has been done to clear its bed or at least reduce the amount of sediment build-up at critical points to allow its waters a swift route to the sea, so that they don’t back up so much.
Another problem that has made the situation worse is deforestation. Tree roots help protect the land around the headwaters from being washed into the streams and rivers. But over the past half century, more sediment has been flushed down the rivers as forests have been cut down.
Deforestation of the north-western part of the country and along the Indus river has been very good business for legal and illegal gangs that have made billions of rupees each year from selling the timber over the last few decades. “One of the most powerful and ruthless organisations within Pakistan, the timber mafia engages in illegal logging… the group’s connection to politicians at the local and federal level has been commented on in the media for years. The constant warnings about the timber mafia almost always include mention of the increased susceptibility of de-forested regions to flooding, landslides and soil erosion.” (The Guardian, comment by Kamila Shamsie, 5 August 2010)
It is impossible that the extensive deforestation operations in the north-western part of the country could have taken place without the support or at least assent of the Pakistani army, whose forces are concentrated there partly as a consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The army is by far Pakistan’s strongest economic institution and the core of its ruling class, as well as the heart of the state..
Class rule and foreign domination
Amidst this disaster, when the authorities did act in the name of flood management, their class interests have led them to make matters worse for the people in many instances. The army, big landowners and local and national authorities are often the same people, or of the same family, and at any rate tied together by common interests.
When the floods began in the northwest (what has been recently renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province), they struck with little forewarning. But it took days and weeks for the full force of the flood to move downriver. This time was not used to warn the people and along with them organize preventative or other measures. Instead, when troops were deployed, it was sometimes secretly because they did not want people to know what they were doing. In Punjab Province, a traditional floodplain crisscrossed by dams, canals and sluices, there have been reports that landlords and the army chose which barrages to blow up and which land to flood based on who owned the fields and the location of army bases. (See The New York Times, 23 August 2010).
The young Pakistani novelist Ali Sethi witnessed an incident in which Sindh Province landowners and the army decided to deliberately dig a hole in a highway embankment. They flooded an adjoining area in neighbouring ethnically-oppressed Baluchistan under three meters of water. The writer was advised not to expose this incident to avoid the wrath of the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s most powerful organization. The deliberate inundation of Baluchistan saved the rice fields of a Sindh big landlowner/politician, and a military air base on the Sindh side. That facility is home to a fleet of U.S.-supplied F-16 fighter jets. Local people also believe that it houses some of the widely-hated American drones responsible for many civilian deaths in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As Sethi wrote, Pakistan ‘”is a place where peasants drown in rice fields they don’t own, where mud-and-brick villages are submerged to save slightly less expendable towns, and where dying villages stand next to airbases housing the most sophisticated jets in the world.” Behind the Pakistani military that rules Pakistan, he points out, stand its “American financiers”. (International Herald Tribune, 27 August 2010).
The government’s role and people’s protests
After this disaster, like after previous ones, the authorities were largely useless in helping flood victims. While millions of people were fleeing their homes and villages, the leaders of Pakistan were running around excitedly using the opportunity to beg for donations from the rich imperialist countries. But this did not and could not do much to help the people. Apart from when journalists and their cameras were present, the people were mainly left on their own to deal with the flood and its consequences. The lack of action only added to the people’s anger and frustration.
Some analysts have warned that Pakistan’s government could face social unrest similar to that after 1971 when “authorities responded slowly to a devastating cyclone. A secessionist movement in East Pakistan capitalised on public anger to successfully fight for independence as Bangladesh… although secession was not solely due to the devastation of Cyclone Bhola. With the flooding, loss and suffering we are currently witnessing in the subcontinent, we must keep in mind that Pakistan is as volatile and precarious now as it was 40 years ago” (Delwar Hussain, the Guardian, 15 August 2010)
What the authorities have been telling the flood victims is that they should just be patient and wait for the water level to go down so that they can go back to their homes. There have been numerous reports of anger and protests by groups of people frustrated by the lack of government action. For example:
“Dozens of men and a few women tried to block five lanes of traffic outside Sukkur, in the southern province of Sindh, today. Villagers set fire to straw and threatened approaching motorists with sticks.” One protestor said, “We left our homes with nothing and now we’re here with no clothes, no food and our children are living beside the road.”
“Last night, hundreds of villagers in the Punjab, the country’s most populous and worst-hit province, burned tyres and chanted ‘down with the government’. ‘We are dying of hunger here. No one has showed up to comfort us,’ said Hafiz Shabbir, a protester in Kot Addu.” (The Guardian, 16 August 2010)
“On our return trip to the north-west, the two main roads were blocked again. This time it was angry residents protesting against a power cut that was in its third day…. ‘We keep calling the government and their line is busy, busy,’ shouted one protester, as black plumes of smoke rose from burning tyres.”
“A resident from Nowshera, Fazal Karim frustrated by the government inaction said: ‘I’ve been asking people to take off their shirts and hold a [shirtless] protest.’ (BBC, 20 August 2010)
Why can’t more help come?
A victim told BBC, “We called the government and asked them for help. They said they had no facilities in our area, no helicopters or people who could assist them.” A Pakistani lawyer from the flooded town Nowshera put it ironically: “We have an atom bomb, but we have no helicopters and boats for rescue, no machinery to clear the roads and build temporary bridges quickly.” (BBC, 5 and 9 August 2010)
Is it true that there were no resources available?
The Pakistani army, the world’s seventh biggest, numbers 650,000. Pakistan army spokesman General Athar Abbas told BBC 20 August that it had deployed 60,000 troops for relief operations, and even that relatively small number might be an exaggeration. He also said that the Pakistani military only had 45 helicopters. Yet there is an enormous concentration of U.S. and Nato (specially UK) aircraft a short flight across the border in Afghanistan, including Huey transport helicopters and other planes that would be particularly useful for civilian emergency operations. General Abbas said that the U.S. military had sent 15 helicopters. On 30 August, a month after the flood began, the U.S. Defence Department Web site bragged that this number was going to be upped… to 19.
The problem is not a lack of resources, but that the interests of those who control them and the whole imperialist system are in antagonistic contradiction to the interests of the masses of people everywhere.
The U.S. – and its junior partner in crime, the Pakistani military – might as well just come out and admit that their arms and technology exist to oppress the people and that they don’t give a damn what happens to millions of poor and common people in Pakistan – except insofar as “instability” threatens their interests.
What happens when “help” does arrive?
In the cases where some emergency supplies are distributed, if they are not just carelessly and inhumanly tossed down on refugees from the sky, they are often distributed outside a politician’s house by their aids or by policemen who arbitrarily decide who should get help and who should not, a scene that could drive the people to extreme anger.
Another flood victim Karm Khan said, “For three days I have waited here from dawn till dusk, but haven’t received a single grain of wheat. They only give it to their potential voters.” (BBC, 5 August 2010)
In general, the nature of “foreign aid” is that even when it does not actually harm the people by wiping out their livelihoods and in other ways, it can do very little to help the masses. In this case we see yet another example of how the goal of imperialist “aid” is to increase their influence in the affected countries and strengthen their local brokers rather than helping the people. The U.S. provides billions of dollars in foreign aid – to the Pakistani army.
Right now, millions of flood victims in Pakistan, are fighting to survive. They – and everyone – will judge what the rulers of this world do to help save their lives.