Pakistan One Year After the Floods

Pakistan One Year After the Floods

When extreme weather hits amid extreme poverty, escape becomes nearly impossible.


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.

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.

And so, the haris are bereft of allies or champions. If they want justice they’ll have to get it on their own. But in flood-ravaged Sindh the zamindars have a different plan—they want their haris back. At the camp on the outskirts of Karachi one landlord from Baluchistan came with five armed guards, threatening to take away several brothers from a family named Bux. All the brothers were in debt to the landlord; he threatened to lock them in his private jail if they did not return and start working. But the camp rallied and faced him down.

All through the Indus flood zone I heard similar stories—landless haris in urban camps preferring to become day laborers rather than return to debt peonage in the districts and landlords complaining that relief aid was keeping the haris away from their obligations. Standing on an earthen levee along a canal in the village of Arazi in the Dadu district of northern Sindh, a stout landlord named Kahari Bhutto exclaimed, “The farmworkers—their homes were wiped out, and they are gone. I don’t know where they are. Landowners themselves are having to do the work!”

As the floodwaters receded, Bhutto, like most farmers, threw down a late emergency crop of wheat. Fortunately, the flood had deposited a rejuvenating layer of nutritionally rich river silt, and the emergency wheat crop across Sindh has been very robust, so too some fast-growing sunflowers given out by USAID. Measures like these have helped offset the damage of the flood. To harvest cotton, says Bhutto, he would normally hire ten to fifteen people, through sharecropping arrangements. But this year he hired only three, and his brother and father also worked. And now, instead of paying 250 rupees per day for labor, he has to pay 500.

When I check at a nearby tent camp full of people who had come from Baluchistan, refugees working as day laborers confirmed that labor prices have indeed gone up. But as one, Mir Mumtaz, explained, the people are in a bind: they do not want to go back to Baluchistan and face their old landlords, nor do they want to enter into sharecropping agreements here in Sindh. “We are afraid of just going into debt again.”

To be clear: although displacement is an escape from debt, it has also meant impoverishment. Khairam Hatar, an older, educated and rather distinguished-looking widow, explained, “I do embroidering here in Dadu town. Before, I had a sewing machine and was able to make money on my own. But I lost that during the flood.” Her sporadic income is a fraction of what it was when she was self-employed in Baluchistan.

Farther up the river in Shikarpur, I meet Mohammad Arif Khan Mahar. A prominent landlord, he was a local politician, and his brother is a member of the provincial parliament. Khan Mahar hosts my traveling companions and me in his attock—a combination guesthouse/meeting hall away from the family house. In the wide courtyard several neem trees shed their blossoms, which a young male servant sweeps up. Around the courtyard are the bedrooms and several plush meeting rooms. The attock halls are decorated with photographic portraits and decorative swords.

The zamindar has many complaints: the government is corrupt—“Our officials mismanaged everything. There’s no accountability for state officials, no planning, no organization whatsoever.” The workforce is illiterate—“Frequently, the labor is useless if the tasks are complex and involve machinery.” He says that indeed many indebted haris “have run away from their responsibilities.” And though he notes rising tension and criminal violence, he says, “Here, there is no insurgency yet.”

The next day we tour his lands by SUV, accompanied by two armed guards. When the SUV stops and the zamindar steps out to survey the damage, his haris drop their tasks and crowd around him, crouching and bowing as they approach to shake his hand. The thin, sinewy, sun-beaten haris, splattered with mud and straw from brick-making and home-rebuilding contrast sharply with the tall, rotund, relatively pale landlord. Except for the SUV, the guns and the sunglasses, this could be a scene from medieval times.

The rage this inequality creates simmers, then boils over. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, much of rural Sindh exploded in riots that had a decidedly class angle: when the flames died down, thirty-four gas stations, eighteen rail stations, hundreds of private cars and shops, and 176 banks had been looted and burned. Just north of here in Punjab some of the haris are gravitating toward a new Punjabi Taliban, which, in rhetoric at least, invoke issues of class exploitation and call for land reform.

What does my host think of land reform? “The government should first give away unused land. Rather than coming after the productive farms just to make a political show.” In many ways Khan Mahar is progressive, adopting new technologies and, according to his workers, paying much better than most landlords. But he is still a feudal landlord with luxury and power, and wants to keep his vast holdings and the indebted haris who live there. He need not worry: there is no discussion of land reform and no chance it will be attempted. When I ask about relief in the area, he waves away the question: “They’ve had enough relief!”

During the first weeks of flooding, relief went relatively smoothly. International aid agencies brought supplies, and the military pulled trucks, planes and helicopters out of Kashmir and the war zones of the Federal Administered Tribal Areas to move supplies to stranded populations. But once the emergency was over, the endemic problems of government corruption and the fetters of landlord influence on politics returned. According to Transparency International’s 2010 ranking, only thirty-three nations are more corrupt than Pakistan.

“NGOs hire locals to have some accountability and traction,” says Qadeer Ansari, a manager with the General Services Department of Dadu district, where 60 to 70 percent of houses were damaged. “But who are these locals? Very often they are just the same old influential people, landlords and their representatives. Nepotism, patronage and corruption shape how relief and reconstruction operate. And often food is simply stolen and sold.”

* * *

The Sindh Department of Irrigation and Power occupies a stately old building in Karachi. The Indus River irrigation system is the largest in the world. And though it has made the desert bloom, the massive storage and channeling of water has also led to soil depletion, as the river no longer renews the fertility of the floodplain; it has also raised the salinity of the groundwater and soil because of evaporation. Like the aging infrastructure of British barrages, canals and levees that it manages, the ministry’s bureaucracy seems stuck in the past. Beautiful old black-and-white marble tiles cover the floors and walls to shoulder height; occasional interior bays allow in diffuse sunlight and breeze. The dim hallways are crowded with beleaguered-looking petitioners and clerks; inside the offices, men—they’re almost all men—leaf through stacks of ragged and battered dossiers. Instead of using filing cabinets the clerks tie their files into bundles and stack them haphazardly on open shelves.

Is there a plan for repairing and managing the increasingly extreme hydrological patterns of the Indus River? Talking with the head of IT, I notice how few computers he has for his department. “Well,” says the clerk sheepishly, “we really just use these computers as typewriters. Just to print out documents and then pass them around in hard copy.” As we are talking, a messenger is collecting a fourth signature and stamp on a document.

This system—in which every little petty potentate in every department has to sign off on every document—is designed to facilitate a culture of bribery. When real planning or technical work is needed, the government outsources these “special projects” to development experts at the World Bank or private firms. As a result, the capacity of the Pakistani state remains malformed and stunted.

Again, the roots of this problem go back to the power of the rural elites. The zamindars systematically crush those who oppose them, preventing the creation of good governance and a literate population because it would undermine their power.

The city of Larkana lies near the country estates of the Bhutto dynasty (into which the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, married). I find my way from here to the village of Fazul Malgani. Home to fifteen families, it sits on the canal-lined plains outside Larkana. I meet Nawaz Ali, an educated, political young farmer who has been struggling to get the village school reopened.

“From 1999 to 2003 we struggled to get a teacher and supplies,” says Ali. “A month ago I went to the officials again but got only promises. We think they have all colluded. They don’t want rural areas to have education.” The one-room village school has two brahma bulls in it, one tied near the blackboard, one in the back of the classroom. The main landlord here, the man to whom people like Ali owe money and from whom they rent land, is Nisar Khuhro, speaker of the Sindh Assembly and a boss in the Bhutto political machine, the Pakistan People’s Party.

“The president is from Larkana,” says Ali. “Yet this school is closed.”

This village was not flooded, but the irrigation canals went dry because the pumps downstream were destroyed by rising water. There was general chaos for months afterward. Most crops perished. Robbery increased. When I ask Ali why there is no peasant movement, he tells me, “The haris are too drowned in their own problems, getting food. Politics here runs on money, and we don’t have any.”

Sindh did have a powerful peasant movement in the past, but repression, corruption and the rise of religious movements with fake solutions to the real problems have worn it down to a few sectarian rump organizations. In a dark little tea shop on a dusty street in Larkana, I meet some representatives of the Labor Party, a woodworkers union and a local revolutionary party called the Watan Dost Inqilabia. They are good comrades, but their movement is minuscule; too many of their intellectuals are caught up in sectarian analysis and post-Soviet defeatism. Many former socialists are drifting toward Sindhi nationalism in hopes that “the national question” can be the new discursive vehicle of class politics. They explain how the zamindars have co-opted the old haris’ organizations, how they bully any tenant farmer who demands schooling for the village children and how agricultural workers aren’t protected under the national labor laws of 1969.

But that night, driving back to Karachi, we pass through a mass rally. Buses are unloading hundreds of men in loose, ghostly-looking shalwar kameez. It is the Jamaat-e-Islami protesting the death of Osama bin Laden. This party, as the mainstream face of political Islam, is indicative of the general crisis. It considers itself oppositional but promotes obscurantist nonsense and crows indignantly about violations of Pakistani sovereignty by the country’s number-one patron (the US military) while ignoring Pakistan’s appalling economic inequality and exploitation.

Disturbingly, the more extreme wing of the political Islamists, the Jamaat-ut-Dawa, linked to the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba, is developing a discourse about the environmental crisis. It has accused India of “water terrorism” because it was building tunnels and dams on key Indus tributaries. And the group has marched, under the slogan Water Flows or Blood.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy