A River Gone Berserk

By Niaz Murtaza

“We initially ignored the rumors as floods never came earlier. But soon we heard the roaring downpour for the first time in life. Death engulfed us and we do not know how we saved our lives. We lost crops, animals, homes and things. The cruel landlord did not let us pick anything unless we repaid his loans and purchased our remaining animals at throwaway prices. People with tractors charged us thousands to evacuate us. We somehow reached the dry areas for help where three boys were crushed by buses. It was calamity after calamity”.

This is how women and children in Upper Sindh described their experiences with the Mahabod (mega flood in Sindhi) to us, almost four months after escaping the rage of the river. For most of the 7 million people affected in Sindh, the Mahabod gave little warning for people to save themselves and their property. After escaping the fury of the floods and the exploitation of elites (disasters always create losers but also winners), the first stop for many was several days on high bunds beyond the reach of the flood. Some got air-dropped aid; others fended on their own under the open sky. As waters receded or air lifts rescued them, the next stop for those unable to go back to their flooded villages or relatives was several days in crowded and dirty government buildings.

Once the army, NGOs and government set up camps, a three-tier class system soon emerged which persists even today even as the number of people in camps has dropped from 2 million to 450,000. The lucky few live in camps supported by international or strong national NGOs, which come close to meeting international SPHERE standards on nutrition, health and sanitation. Next are the majority of people living in camps run by weak agencies or even no agency. Such people avail few services and live in squalor. Finally, some people also live by the road side, under rags, plastic sheet or even trees. Several children have reportedly been killed by passing traffic. Most displaced people are eager to go back home but wait for waters to recede in their villages and/or for some financial help to go back.

For those back in villages, life is little better. Most live in tents brought from camps and set up on the ruins of their houses. Many are unable to cultivate their still flooded or soggy lands this season. There is a shortage of food but abundance of malaria, diarrhea and skin diseases. People are faced with the daunting task of rebuilding their lives. Their topmost concern is reconstructing houses. Feeding families, repairing hand pumps, restarting agriculture, rebuilding animal herds, repaying loans, getting warm clothes for winter and sending children back to school are other concerns.

Few have an easy path to accomplishing these daunting tasks. Millions have lost the limited assets accumulated over decades through hard work even under exploitative relationships with landlords and it will take years for them to regain their lost status without help. Unfortunately, no major help is on its way. Despite being a bigger disaster than the tsunami and Haiti earthquake with almost 20 million affected people, these floods have evoked limited response. Watan cards have reached few people and rampant accusations of nepotism in their delivery circulate in village after village.

Thus, NGOs are left trying to figure out where to apply their meager budgets across endless needs. In talking with people, it becomes apparent that best is to put the bulk of aid in restoring people’s (especially women’s), livelihoods: agriculture, livestock, handicraft and cash-for-work. This advice is based on a simple reality. Even in interior Sindh, among Pakistan’s least developed areas, people’s livelihoods are essentially viable and allow them to meet their basic needs and even accumulate some consumer goods. Most people have small plots of land cultivable twice a year and earn additional income by laboring for landlords and via livestock. Disasters are a rarity, except perhaps in Thar. This was the first major disaster that people had seen or even heard about from their forefathers.

This is in contrast to dozens of countries in Africa and some even in Asia where communities suffer disasters every few years, and their livelihoods provide inadequate income even otherwise. Abject poverty is rampant and people depend perpetually on aid. In contrast, helping people with livelihoods in Sindh will leverage the meager sums available with aid agencies and make people self-reliant.

Developing sound disaster preparedness measures is also essential. Such measures, largely absent in Pakistan given our limited exposure to major disasters to-date and government apathy, have saved the lives and property of millions in disaster-prone countries. In Bangladesh, aid agencies link up with community volunteers to get people to specially built shelters before cyclones descend from heavens. Thus, during the 2007 category 4 Sidr cyclone, few lost their lives compared with almost 150,000 deaths a few months later in Myanmar from a similar-strength cyclone as the paranoid military government there afforded little access to NGOs to develop such measures. In rural Vietnam, people build two-storied houses elevated on bamboo stick. As floods rise, they simply move up to the second storey and go around in boats. Similar measures will be required in Pakistan too as climate change increases the frequency of disasters.

Finally, what social-political changes will the Mahabod bring? Some have predicted revolutions due to government neglect and people’s anger. Unfortunately, in interior Sindh, there are few signs of brewing rebellions as people are essentially internalizing their sorrows. As one woman put it aptly, “If the Mahabod did not spare God’s house (mosque), who are we to complain about ours?” Political and social change is facilitated by economic changes. Unfortunately, rural Sindh has experienced little of the economic out-migration which is gradually changing political landscapes in most other regions. Thus, change in interior Sindh will likely come from the domino effect of more rapid changes elsewhere.

Dr. Niaz Murtaza, University of California, Berkeley, murtazaniaz@yahoo.com.