Locals in and around Kot Adu, Shama’s hometown, had already been raising the alarm about the faulty design of Taunsa Barrage, in particular, and the philosophy of large dam construction, in general, for several years. A local movement against the extension of Taunsa Barrage had made significant headway in voicing concerns at the national level. The barrage was first constructed in 1958. Over the last fifty years, it has led to a dramatic decrease in the fertile silt available to renew the freshwater mangroves in the Indus delta farther south. Dams and barrages designed for rivers that don’t carry much silt have been placed atop the Indus River, one of the most silt-rich rivers in the world. The barrage at Taunsa traps huge amounts of silt (approximately 150 megatons annually) in the upstream areas, and this has led, among other things, to a significant rise in the riverbed. The raised riverbed in turn affects the speed and spread of water in the river. The river is increasingly cutting into vulnerable banks and finding its way past previously effective levees and banks (Gadi 2010; Ghazanfar 2010).
The increased amount of silt that the river carries also has implications for the Taunsa Barrage’s own reservoir. In 2004, the World Bank raised a loan of $144 million for the government of Pakistan to “rehabilitate” the Taunsa Barrage. Local groups organized against the plans to raise the crest levels of the barrage and pointed to several engineering and design faults that they claimed would lead to increased sedimentation and harder to control water flows in the river. They also claimed that these design faults would render the barrage more susceptible to regular failures. Finally, the extension would dislocate an already dwindling population of indigenous people who have lived on the river Indus for generations. From the point of view of these indigenous people, it is a matter not just of faulty engineering but also of a fundamentally flawed philosophical view that man can dominate nature continuously and without consequences. A report based on these claims was presented to the World Bank and the government of Pakistan.
However, the substantive aspects of local concerns were not addressed by the Pakistani government and the World Bank. Activists in the area claim that ten to fourteen gates—out of a total of thirty-two—have not been operational for some time, and when the massive amount of water hit the barrage this August, the river outflanked it and developed a parallel channel that inundated vast swathes of relatively high-level land that had never previously been flooded. The parallel channel also fed into the canal network near the left bank of the barrage, again reaching higher areas. Areas around Taunsa Barrage are among the worst hit by this year’s flooding. Local activists do not take any solace in being proven right in their arguments with the World Bank and the government of Pakistan, but they now have potentially greater strength behind their mobilizations.
The Managed Mismanagement of the Floods
Adding insult to injury are the Pakistani government’s attempts at portraying the locals as hapless victims of this “unprecedented natural disaster”; the victims are in these portrayals incapable, dependent, and mute. The naturalness of the disaster is increasingly under question, and the managed mismanagement of the floods is being brought under scrutiny by Pakistani activists: Why have the floods gone on for so long? There has been after all no new water entering the river once it was past the Taunsa Barrage. And with the flooding and leakage along the way, surely there is less water making its way through the system in the south? Why then this ongoing devastation? Why were southern areas not prepared for the flood once its magnitude was clear in the north?
Even more frustrating in the immediate context is the lack of acknowledgment not just of the warnings that local activists had raised about the dam projects but of the courage and initiative shown by the locals in combating the devastation caused by the floods. As in Haiti, and contrary to the proclamations in international media, the most effective and immediate aid has been provided by locals to one another. In each locality households have taken in members of their extended family and their friends and shared their food and their water supplies. In the dry areas around Kot Adu, locals have opened their homes even to complete strangers. They have been sharing their meager food reserves, living space, and other resources. We have seen homes where the courtyards have been transformed into a maze of charpoys (beds made of a wooden frame and rope). Each of these charpoys holds a family unit of sorts, often women and their children. One charpoy per family is clearly inadequate, yet this should not obscure the absolute generosity of those who have shared their scarce resources with others.
A similar pattern was in view in Noshera Kalan, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Compared to the Kot Adu area, Noshera was better served through organized camps partly because of the prominent position of the army and the air force in the area and partly because it is only two hours drive from Islamabad, allowing ease of access for many international and national agencies. In Noshera Kalan, almost every house had a collapsed roof or wall and cracks and debris left behind by the receding water. The stench in the street was overpowering. People were just beginning to open up their small shops, which were filled with mud behind closed shutters. In these circumstances, again neighbors were helping each other, making space in the rubble that was their home to accommodate others in worse situations. Local volunteers had dug out dwellings and shops with their bare hands while the government waited for internationally donated equipment to be delivered. Locals were also seeking ways to pool resources and to get their businesses running again through networks of loans and shared resources. Some are talking of new industries and infrastructure built using the labor and expertise of displaced persons.
However, as the aid machinery begins to kick into gear, a most disturbing pattern of sidelining local initiatives is emerging. The Pakistani government has taken out the begging bowl again and is intent on defining these people as hapless victims. No doubt millions of people living an already precarious life have been thrown off the edge by the floods. Yet, these people are not without initiative nor without ideas about how they would like to reconstruct their communities and homes. These initiatives can and should be supported. What they don’t need is aid being dumped upon them; what they do ask for are creative and supportive structures to facilitate the implementation of their ideas: technology exchanges, access to markets, training facilities, coordinating mechanisms. This kind of imaginative support, however, seems to be beyond the capabilities of the current government. While the UN struggles to meet the $460 million aid target that it has set up for Pakistan, the Pakistani government is spending its energies and time on convincing international donors that it needs more money. What precisely that aid will be used for remains to be seen. Certainly there is little faith that the majority of this kind of aid will make its way to the flood-hit areas.
Some groups are advocating that international agencies and national donors write off Pakistani debt instead of providing aid, which often comes tied to political and economic programs and only strengthens existing political structures. They are also organizing to build a campaign to divert budget spending from defense to reconstruction. Others are arguing that writing off the debt will let the political elite off the hook and therefore the campaign should focus on accountability. These are not mutually exclusive aims, and a broader campaign to politicize the “natural” disaster is already underway.
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