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Pakistan One Year After the Floods | The Nation

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Pakistan One Year After the Floods

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Funding for this article was provided by the Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Documentary Prize from The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Karachi—A hot, gritty wind carries the stench of pit latrines across a refugee camp on the western outskirts of Karachi, on Pakistan’s southern facing coast. In the sky, vultures and eagles circle. At its peak, this camp held 1,400 families, all poor farmers displaced by the Indus floods of 2010, which inundated an area the size of England and affected more than 20 million people.

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About the Author

Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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Although climate change cannot be directly blamed for a lone weather event, last year’s floods in Pakistan and the extreme monsoon that caused them fit the pattern that scientists predict climate change will bring. The United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the Indus Basin will suffer more floods and droughts as the planet heats up. And Pakistan’s Meteorological Department believes the country’s average surface temperature will rise by 1.3 to 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next decade.

Before the massive floods of 2010—the worst in memory— much of central and southern Asia was suffering through a brutal ten-year drought, during which crops did poorly and farmers sank ever deeper into debt. Pakistan is considered one of the most arid countries in the world and one of the most water-stressed. The flood was just the latest bit of extreme weather.

For those concerned about the human impacts of climate change, flooded Pakistan has been a harbinger, a warning and a test. The people in this camp are climate refugees, and their efforts to survive are what climate adaptation and the struggle for climate justice look like up close.

In Pakistan one can see how the climate crisis is filtered through pre-existing social problems—and thus demands a response that couples the mitigation strategies that climate campaigners generally emphasize with an adaptive program of social justice. It is, after all, the country’s extreme poverty that renders so many Pakistanis intensely vulnerable to extreme weather.

In rural Sindh, the floodwaters have finally receded, but the old problems have not. It is time to plant new crops, but in many refugee camps there are people refusing to go back to the land. At the windswept camp outside Karachi only half the residents have gone home. Aid agencies are cutting off relief, and the government is telling people to leave. Yet many refugees are stubbornly staying put.

“We will die here before we go back to those landlords,” says Mehboob Ali, the camp spokesman. He and his neighbors seem to mean it. The day before I visited, the camp’s incipient social organization, the Mutasereen (affected people) Action Committee, marched demanding the right to stay and build houses. Police met the marchers with volleys of tear gas and a baton charge. Several marchers were bruised and lacerated by clubs and gas canisters, and a 5-year-old went missing—a small example of how climate change leads to increased violence (for more on this topic see my new book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence).

Why would desperately poor flood victims fight to stay in a dust-choked tent camp on the outskirts of a violent mega-city rather than go back to their homes?

The answer lies in the horrible exploitation and humiliation that is everyday life for most people in rural Pakistan. In Sindh, the traditional landlords are called zamindars and their tenant farmers are haris. Since independence and partition, in 1947, various Pakistani leaders have attempted land reform, but little has ever been achieved. And so, today the zamindars still own vast tracts of land on which their serflike haris live and work.

* * *

Several hundred miles north of Karachi on the edge of Sukkur, where old British-built barrages regulate the flow of the Indus, I found another camp of displaced people who don’t want to move. These people could also be described as escapees from feudalism. The camp lacks a school, a clinic, even basic sanitation, and aid is being cut off. But the remaining residents are finding ways to fit themselves into the local labor market: young men work on construction sites and in granaries and warehouses. Women go to the kachcha—the wild area along the river—where they pay armed men for the right to cut wood for resale to restaurants in Sukkur city.

“We don’t want to go back because the landlord will double our debt,” says Hassan Khoso. “We want the government to give us land.” He goes on, “Some poor tenant farmers ran off in the first week of the flood, before the water could even reach their district.” Such was their desire to flee. Khoso, who’s from near Jacobabad, owed 50,000 rupees (about $560) last year but fears the debt will be 100,000 if he returns. He lost a rice crop worth 30,000 rupees, two water buffalo and two goats. He says that landlords have been coming to the camp urging the haris to return. Khoso and others say that is part of what keeps them close to the city. Along with work, there is access to hospitals and the promise—at least the promise—of education for their children.

As at the camp on the western edge of Karachi, these people have formed a camp committee. To make their demands heard they marched to the local press club and held a sit-in. And how are such calls for reform and development being met by officials? Dead silence.

The floods inundated an area the size of England, destroyed almost 5 million acres of crops, killed about 1,750 people and left 10 million homeless. Rebuilding is expected to take three to five years. Despite the scale of the damage, the discourse around reconstruction involves very little if any public discussion of how things can be improved; ideas like social justice, land reform, climate adaptation or climate justice are missing. Local left parties are marginalized and hounded by landlord thugs.

The reason for this is simple: landlords have too much power. They control the sale of seed and fertilizer, set the prices of crops, rig local elections, imprison in private jails those who oppose them, use village schools to stable their cattle and generally have their own way regarding the people. Their influence on the government is pervasive at all levels. There has been no pressure for change coming from the US government—which has given Pakistan $18 billion in assistance and payments since 2002. Nor has any come from the international NGOs and the UN—both of which run large aid and development programs here. When I interviewed a spokeswoman for the UN World Food Program, so diligently did she tiptoe around the sensibilities of the Pakistani government that she refused even to use the word “corruption.” Oxfam, on the other hand, has launched an investigation into “financial irregularities” within its own flood-relief work.

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