Whole towns have vanished

September 8, 2010

The catastrophic floods that tore through parts of Pakistan have left an estimated 20 million people homeless. According to UN officials, the scale of the disaster--in terms of the number of people suffering--than the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami that hit India and the earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005 combined.

Bushra Khaliq is general secretary of the Women Workers Help Line, based in Lahore, and a leading member of the Labor Party Pakistan (LPP), which is working with other left groups to organize a response to the disaster that provides an alternative to the government's inaction. She talked to Lee Sustar after returning from a visit to some of the regions hit by the flood.

CAN YOU give us a sense of the devastation caused by the flooding? It's really not getting the kind of attention it warrants in the U.S. media.

ALL OF the rivers have turned really aggressive, and our canal systems and bridge systems have collapsed. And the state institutions responsible for managing the water system and for disaster management have also broken down.

So far, it's estimated that over 20 million people have been directly affected by the flooding, and more than 8 million people are still in need of relief aid. The people who are living in rural areas--in small towns and small villages--are really worst off. Their mud houses have collapsed, and their livelihoods, whether crops or livestock, have been destroyed. Over 200,000 animals, including buffalos, goats and poultry, are dead.

The livestock industry was centered in those areas near the biggest river, the Indus River, and these are the most affected districts. And due to continuing heavy rainfall, the whole situation has become much worse. The people who are living in camps after the floods face huge difficulties, because neither civil society institutions nor the government have the capacity to deal with need on such a scale.

A small village devastated by the flooding in Pakistan remains marooned as floodwaters recede
A small village devastated by the flooding in Pakistan remains marooned as floodwaters recede

Because of all this, the lives of more than 50,000 children are in danger. This is after the flooding--their lives are in danger due to the threat of cholera and other waterborne diseases. I've visited some of the flood areas, and from what I've seen, the situation is very bad. The whole situation has been poorly administered by government institutions.

HOW HAS this disaster brought into focus the contradictions of Pakistani state and society?

YOU KNOW, of course, that the people of Pakistan were already facing huge problems. The small nationalities fighting for their fundamental rights. Common citizens are fighting against price increases. There is an electricity shortage, and we are facing terrorist activities in all parts of the country. Just three hours before this interview, 10 minutes from my home, there were three big bomb blasts near a shrine where a Shia religious procession was taking place, and more than 28 people died, and over 150 people were injured.

So the floods are another big challenge to the present government. I believe that if this government is unable to address these challenges, including the flood and the aftermath of the flood, the terrorism and the question of the small nationalities, I don't see how Pakistan will remain as a state as it is now.

CAN YOU talk more about the official government response?

THE GOVERNMENT actually established a National Disaster Management Authority. But this authority was responsible for giving an early warning about how much water was coming, and concrete steps to take. So for the communities and the people affected, there's a deficit of trust between the government of Pakistan and the citizens of Pakistan.

This is even more the case now, because over 20 million people are suffering weeks after the flooding--they are out of food; they're out of clothing; there is no shelter for them. The tents available from different aid agencies are very small, and people aren't being given the most basic necessities. And now, because of the lack of safe drinking water and medicine, people are suffering from different diseases.

I've just come back from the flood areas, where I visited several towns in the remote areas of Kot Addu in the district of Muzaffargarh, which faced two floods, from the East and the West. The water was over eight to 10 feet deep there. And whole towns have vanished. I mean, the dwellings and the homes are no more. People can't recognize that area--I visited there several times, but I can't recognize the area. It's finished now.

Also, the people living in the camps are saying that their needs aren't being addressed properly. Ordinary people are contributing what they can to provide some basic facilities for people, but the government's delivery and provision of facilities for the refugees isn't properly maintained and properly administered.

I also want to mention that the whole infrastructure system collapsed, including railways, roads and bridges. So people who want to go back to their homes are facing another challenge, because there is no public transportation available. Gas isn't available at prices people can afford. People want to get back to their homes, but they don't have enough money for transportation. Plus, people who successfully saved their livestock need money to get their animals and their families back to their homes.

THERE'S VERY little aid coming from the U.S., which has a massive military infrastructure in Afghanistan and has been carrying out attacks on Pakistani territory. Why do you think the international aid has been so limited?

THE UN agencies have been here and are providing food, tents for shelter, and some medical supplies, but I don't think it's sufficient. A lot of money is needed to deal with this challenge. The roads, the communication system, electricity, the bridges--they're all gone.

I think that all the civil society organizations in Pakistan and the UN agencies have to realize how much bigger this disaster is. But so far, the aid isn't coming--it's not sufficient to deal with this.

I've done relief and rehabilitation work for the last several years. When the earthquake struck in 2005, I collected money from the people of Lahore, and they were very generous in their contributions for their brothers and sisters in need.

But this time, these people are demanding to know what the government is doing. It's their responsibility to provide shelter and to deal with this issue. So I've seen some reluctance to contribute. Our local organizations are organizing relief campaigns, but we can't make up such a big difference.

I also want to talk about the situation of women and children, because these are sections of the population that are already marginalized--especially women from those areas where they wear veils and are considered second-class citizens, and their mobility is already restricted.

In this situation, they have to sit in the camps, waiting for their men to get the food from people who are providing the aid. This situation is very alarming for us. There's a big difference between a man who's affected by the flood and a woman who's affected. The men can go to the aid agencies for food or other relief items, but the women are staying in the camps and waiting for somebody to come and provide them food or other things.

I've spent some time with women who are now getting back to their villages. They were really in shock, because when they left, their homes were there. But after two weeks of a very miserable time in the camps, they get back, and their homes aren't there. Their household items, their clothing, their bedding--it's all finished now.

They should also be provided with psychological therapy, because they aren't just suffering from the diseases and conditions of the physical environment. They were already poor--already they had very few resources for their livelihoods. And now they don't even have that.

And now, the weather is changing, and in one or two months, it will be winter. So they're worried about warm clothes and shelter for their children.

And what is the government doing? What are the UN agencies and aid organizations doing? It's now been one month since the people of Nowshera, Charsadda and Mardan lost their properties and their livelihoods, and the now the floodwaters are striking in different districts of the Sindh. It's been one month, and the people of Pakistan are looking at those people who are supposed to extend support in terms of shelter and food and other relief.

THE LABOR Party Pakistan has issued a statement calling for a moratorium on debt repayments to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and forgiveness of the debt. Can you talk about how Pakistan's debt burden and imperialism is making this crisis worse?

THERE ARE six or seven organizations that are collectively making efforts to raise the true questions after this flood. Poverty has already been on the increase--more than 70 percent of the population was living under the poverty line before the flooding. Conditions were particularly difficult for people living in rural areas, and that's why the desperation and disappointment is so high now.

We are collecting money from ordinary people, and providing food and shelter to the people in Balochistan and in some areas of Southern Punjab. We are also addressing some basic needs in the Khyber Pakhtunkwa. But what we can do is very small.

We have also initiated a campaign to say no to Pakistan repaying its foreign debts--the government of Pakistan has taken more than $54 billion in loans. It's the right time to refuse to pay back such a big amount to the IMF and the other international financial institutions.

We are raising this question at the national level. It's a big political question, but it's also now a humanitarian question. If people are out of food, out of medicine, out of shelter, how can the government devote so much money, with a lot of interest, to paying back international financial institutions? It's the responsibility of the government of Pakistan to refuse these foreign debts now.

More than 30 percent of our national budget goes to the repayment of foreign debt. We have only about 10 percent for the social sector, because another 30 percent goes for military spending. What is left behind for the poor of Pakistan? And now, we will need to rebuild infrastructure throughout the Pakistan.

This is a question not only for the government of Pakistan and citizens of Pakistan, but it's a question for all Third World countries--what these international financial institutions like the IMF are doing. It will be a collective effort to put pressure on to lift the debts.

YOU ALSO call for an end to the U.S. war on Afghanistan and its intervention in Pakistan. Has the flood disaster made that demand more urgent?

WELL, WE spend more than 30 percent of the national budget on the military, in order to make our defenses stronger against the Taliban, as the U.S. demands.

Right now, the military is busy in relief work, and in this way, it is earning respect from the people--the military is trying to save its image. But I think after some months, it will start taking new contracts with multinational companies for the building or rebuilding of roads and bridges and other things. That is, it will get an advantage both ways.

This is the role of the army in this country. In normal times, it takes a large share of the national budget in the name of defense, and in emergencies, they also makes a lot of money from new contracts and construction proposals.

But the LPP and the other organizations involved in relief work have made it clear that we think the government of Pakistan should realize the challenges it faces and its responsibilities.

This is a milestone in the history of Pakistan. The government has to decide whether we want to become a security state or become a social state. If Pakistan were to decide that the state should be a social state and a citizen state, I think there are chances for Pakistan to survive.

A state of the citizens, with democracy and equality and a strong infrastructure, is the only solution for the survival of this country. Otherwise, the whole country's survival is at risk now.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

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