LARKANA, Sindh province – It is 40 degrees Celsius in the mid-afternoon. Buffalo submerge themselves in floodwaters covering farmland to cool off. Only their heads are above water as they snort and shake to dismiss the morass of flies buzzing around.
For many among the estimated 6 million people now homeless by the floods in Pakistan, such comfort remains elusive. Many are still without basic shelter and rest under trees, under their carts, and beneath makeshift canopies fashioned from beds, blankets and whatever bits of timber or trees they can find.
On Sunday, teams of foreign and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attempted to reduce the vast deficit by supplying 500 families in Larkana with temporary shelters, along with basic survival kits such as jerrycans and buckets to fetch and store water, and kitchen sets to enable families to cook. A drop in the ocean in a many ways, but something nonetheless.
Larkana’s pre-flood population of around 345,000 has been swollen to over half a million, as the Indus River expanded to 40 times its usual size in places. The roaring, unstoppable river has spawned a tidal wave of people – on the roads, into towns and cities, all seeking refuge, shelter, food and dry land. A vast ebb and flow of water and people, and of tear for the vast losses incurred.
“My farm is under water, and we will not be able to plant even if the water goes,” said Shabaz, one of the 500 heads-of-households in the line-up to receive the material.
With millions of people needing assistance amid pulverized or deluged infrastructure, a much-criticized government intervention, and a laggard response from the international community to a disaster that unfurled slowly over weeks, tensions are rising.
Shelter material is proving difficult to procure – with a nationwide shortage of the wooden or bamboo poles needed to transform plastic sheeting into viable shelters or tents. The destruction wrought on roads and infrastructure means that, even if such material is sourced elsewhere, it is far from easy to get it from A to B.
For Sunday’s small outlay, it required careful planning and management to ensure that people understood that 500 families would be provided with the material. A police presence was necessary to pre-empt any surge in numbers from the many thousands awaiting their turn nearby, or any rowdiness at the drop-off point.
Such concerns all add to the security challenge that must be dealt with, in a country where threats have been made against foreign aid workers by the Tehrik-e-Taliban (Pakistan Taliban). A rumor that three foreign aid workers had been killed in Swat in the northwest of the country in recent days, has not been confirmed, according to a security source working with NGOs who requested anonymity.
In the days since the rumor broke, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, said, “The government has, of course, a whole security strategy for aid workers and no aid worker has been hurt in Pakistan in the last several years.”
Choices, conundrums and conspiracies are everywhere. Floodwaters diverted onto farmland to save cities become allegations of oligarchs and elites deliberately saving their farms and mills, while deluging impoverished smallholders.
At Sukkur, the main town in northern Sindh, the rising, roaring river was diverted to prevent inexorable pressure building up on a massive dam on the town’s outskirts, which if breached might have inundated the city. The choice faced by the authorities – to save the city or save the land – doesn’t wash with the thousands of farming families who travelled 20, 30 or even 50 miles (80 kilometers) on foot to Sukkur only to find that shelter and other relief were in short supply.
Still, respect for the old, feudal order persists. Hundreds of homeless people are camped at the Bhutto family mausoleum, outside the family’s home village at Garhi Khuda Baksh. The massive structure, with its Taj Mahal-esque domes, can be seen for miles around – a white opulence in aesthetic contrast with the green rice paddies all around, and in contrast with the misery and suffering of the displaced women and children sheltering from the heat inside the relative cool of the compound, 15 meters from the final resting place of Benazir and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former president.
The late Mrs Bhutto – who served twice as premier – retains enormous respect in Sindh, unlike her husband, current President Asif Ali Zardari, who was criticized for visiting Europe as the flood crisis broke several weeks ago.
Prior to the disaster, his popularity rating was a meagre 20%. A perception that the government is corrupt and feckless, and that the country is beset by militants has likely hindered the amount of donations by Western countries. For a natural disaster that has displaced an estimated 20 million people and submerged one-fifth of the country, financial support has lagged far behind that offered to victims of the Haiti earthquake and other recent disasters, including the 2005 Pakistan earthquake.
United States Agency for International Development (USAID) shelter material – emblazoned with the motto “From the American people” – dots the outskirts of towns and cities, even as some foreign NGOs balk at distributing the kit. The ordinary Pakistanis awaiting aid are far less picky, despite findings from a recent Pew survey that shows six out 10 Pakistanis regard the US as an enemy. Nonetheless, US drone strikes in Taliban strongholds in Pakistan’s north have continued as flood relief is disbursed.
Washington has committed US$200 million for flood assistance, more than any international donor so far. American charity, however, is better-described as a private matter and historically these donations and philanthropy have far-outstripped official aid – undercutting the sneering from Europe about America’s alleged indifference to humanitarian issues. However, for this flood, American private contributions estimated at $11 million have lagged behind those for other disasters. The Haiti earthquake prompted $560 million in American donations.
The relatively low death toll in comparison with other recent disasters – fewer than 2,000 people so far – and the slow unfurling of the disaster as the floods spread over weeks, are likely to have contributed to the relatively slow response.
The Pakistani Taliban has offered 2 million rupees (US$23,360) in aid for victims of the devastating floods, saying that donor governments were slow to cough up, as they did not trust the Pakistani government. The Taliban earlier urged the government to reject aid from Western countries.
China is making its presence felt, already rebuilding roads in northern Pakistan that lead into western China’s Xinjiang province. A commentary on state-run Xinhua’s website waxed lyrical, even as Beijing’s contribution was a fraction of Washington’s.
“At a time when flood-hit Pakistanis desperately need a helping hand, China spares no efforts in providing them with timely assistance, sending rescue teams to the country’s worst-hit regions, not to mention the at least 120 million yuan [US$17.7 million] worth of humanitarian supplies it has already offered.”
However, oil-rich Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia have been criticized for tight-fistedness, with Riyadh upping its initial $20 million pledge to $80 million, while official pledges and donations from other Gulf states have been paltry – though the OIC says that member-states have pledges totalling almost US$1billion in aid, either in cash or in kind, ready to go. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani accompanied Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal to a relief camp at Muzaffargarh, and took an aerial view of the flood-hit areas on Sunday.
Half-hearted competition for hearts and minds is ongoing, with the government and militant-linked charities trying to outdo one another in providing aid to the stricken millions. Meanwhile, Christians and other religious minorities affected by the disaster complain they are being discriminated against in the relief effort.
One Sindhi aid worker, who asked not to be identified, said of the flood and the relief effort – “What is happening will add to Pakistan’s problem of governance. We have no leadership, and the ordinary people – they do not know or care about whether it is democracy or a military government. But they will see that vast numbers of their kind were neglected.”
* article closely-matches reports done for CBC Canada on August 30/31Show