Pakistan floods: “We’ve been set back 30 years” – The Diplomat

Without shelter, some flood-displaced people just shelter under furniture near Garhi Khuda Baksh (Simon Roughneen

GARHI KHUDA BAKSH- As the floodwaters slowly recede and the Indus River empties into the Arabian Sea, the full impact of what Pakistan’s foreign minister on Wednesday described as the worst disaster in the country’s history is becoming clearer.

A death toll of just over 1600 is set to rise, with the sad likelihood is that more dead bodies will be found as the waters drain. Rotting carcasses of hundreds of thousands of drowned livestock will add to the threat of disease, as the river drains into the sea and the dead animals are exposed to the blistering 40 degree heat

Over 3.5 million are thought to be homeless in Sindh, with six million displaced nationwide. The threat of epidemic is real, with people on the move in blistering heat amid vast, often stagnant, floodwaters.

Aid workers have reacted with alarm to reports of cholera in northern Sindh province. “If there is just one case of cholera, then that can lead to hundreds, if not thousands, given that this is an airborne disease and spreads quickly,” said Dr Wasi Aslam, based at the Railway Hospital in Sukkur.

Over four weeks after the disaster began, thousands of flood survivors and evacuees can be seen on roadsides, still without any tents or shelter. The United Nations says donors have paid around 63 percent of the US$459 million needed to fund flood relief over the next three months.

However, to date, only a fraction of those who need aid have received it, and the evidence of this can be seen at roadside and in fields all over Sindh. While many are in camps, with tents provided by NGOs or by the Pakistani military, others have nothing.

Anger is growing, with roadblocks and protests in Sukkur and other towns, expressing disgruntlement with the relief effort.

Outside Garhi Khuda Baksh in Sindh Province, men, women and children lie under upturned beds which have been propped up at an angle with sticks or broken-off tree branches.

Those I spoke with understand clearly what the disaster that has befallen their country means. “We have been set back thirty years,” said Fatima, a mother of seven ,and one of twelve people seeking shade under a rough-and-ready shelter made from plastic sheeting and bamboo, loosely tied-down with rope and a peg on two corners, running diagonally from top-right to bottom-left.

At the floodwaters near Shadad Kot, aidworkers are delivering relief to isolated communities and evacuating people weeks after the disaster. (Simon Roughneen)

“We had four hours notice to run when the warning was shouted from the mosque. We have had almost four weeks here in the sun since,” pointing around at the camp, sitting twenty meters from a contingency flood barrier set up to protect the massive mausoleum in the background, the final resting place of slain former Premier Benazir Bhutto.

Even as the floodwaters dropped in the north and centre of the country, more towns in the far south of the country were threatened, with the low-lying town of Sujawal submerged on Sunday. Rising waters, as the River Indus slowly empties into the Arabian Sea, were threatening the towns of Jati and Choohar Jamali, where official warnings were issued to residents to evacuate.

Emergency relief operations focus on evacuations, disease prevention, shelter provision and feeding the homeless. However for the immediate and longer term, the people, aid agencies and the Pakistan Government must think about how to rebuild the shattered regions affected by the flood. It will be a mammoth reconstruction task to rebuild and rehabilitate roads, power stations, schools and health facilities.

The damage wrought on the country’s agricultural economy means that people will needs food aid for months, in some cases well over a year, depending on when planting can be done in the flooded areas — once the water is gone. The immediate losses are immense, and will stretch an already indebted economy even more. Pakistan’s external debt is set to reach US$74 billion by 2014, with annual debt servicing three times the US$1billion spent on health care by the government.

Shadad Kot, Aug. 31 2010, almost deserted after an evacuation order was issued. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Shadad Kot, Aug. 31 2010, almost deserted after an evacuation order was issued. (Simon Roughneen)

According to Pakistan’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the country has lost half a million tonnes of wheat, 1.6million tonnes of rice paddy, 7.6 million tonnes of sugarcane and 2-3 million bales of cotton. An estimated 23% of the year’s harvest was washed away, including a quarter of the cotton crop – which is a vital input into the country’s textile industry.

Three quarters of Pakistan’s total exports comprise textiles and agriculture, some of which will now have to imported to meet domestic demand, straining an already weak economy further and draining the public purse just when money is needed for flood rebuilding. The full economic costs and impact will be made in time by the Government of Pakistan, along with the UN and the World Bank. The reality is, however, that the country has been set back years by this disaster, which is far from over as disease and hunger threaten millions.

The government’s much-criticised response to the disaster has led to a relative popularity boost for the army, which has the logistical and heavy-lift capacity to at least be seen to be operating.

Simultaneously, jihadist groups are working on flood relief, and may capitalise on the perceived ineptitude in Government to boost their profile and popularity, not least in regions where they were driven out by the Army in recent years. However their implementation capacity seems to be limited – with a few dozen camps in place, compared with government/military camps numbering almost 3,000, according to officials.

IDPs draw water at the Bhutto mausoleum (Simon Roughneen)

One positive outcome from the disaster could be improved relations between India and Pakistan. This possibility comes after New Delhi upped its initial offer of US$5million in bilateral aid to US$25million – which Islamabad wants routed through UN agencies.

The aid pledge is set against a background of the decades-old dispute over Kashmir and Indian anger over the 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks, which killed 166 people and were blamed on Lashkar-e-Taiba, an al-Qaeda linked group which is now working on flood relief in Pakistan.

New Delhi’s offer was slow in coming, two weeks after the disaster started, and criticism of India has been matched by dismay at Pakistan’s slow and apparently grudging acceptance of the offer. The disaster and aid negotiations, might, it is hoped, at least reset India-Pakistan relations to their pre-November 2008 levels.

The relief effort would benefit, too, if economic ties were improved sufficiently to allow aid to enter Pakistan from India, thereby overcoming some of the unwieldy logistical and procurement challenges faced by NGOs and international agencies.

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