The devastation caused by the floods in Pakistan has received significant international media attention over the last several weeks. While focusing quite exclusively on the opportunity this might provide to militant groups when they provide flood relief in a more timely and consistent manner than the government, the framing of the news emphasizes the “naturalness” of the disaster, tempering this slightly with some discussion of official incompetence, political wrangling, and the general lack of basic infrastructure in Pakistan. The population of Pakistan seems to be comprised entirely of either the incompetent or the unfortunate.
There is, in this framing, no interrogation of the neoliberal policies that led to large-scale deforestation in the northern regions of Pakistan, which lent fury to the speed of the water, its range, and its capacity to damage. Nor is there any questioning of the World Bank–funded, ill-designed dams that caused severe constraints to water drainage in the south, leading to the submerging of large tracts of land that had never before been flooded. The international media’s presentation of this “natural” disaster in Pakistan then allows the very same agencies and groups that contributed to the devastation to emerge as humanitarian and magnanimous, coming to the rescue of a hapless people. There is very little questioning of the precise mechanisms through which powerful landholding families were able to divert flood waters from their lands into other areas or of the implications of their actions for prolonging the floods as the water made its way through little-used, ill-prepared canals and lakes. In short, the subtle and long-term process through which the infrastructure, physical and human, has been impacted by an intertwining of local and international, political and economic interests is sidelined in blaming nature for the extent of the devastation caused by these floods. No doubt the mighty river Indus has been ruthless in the past as well, but this particular flood has a particularly man-made aspect to it.
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Daira Din Gaoon: A Vicious Vindication
The Indus River—a massive wall of water as high as eight feet—hit Daira village at 4 a.m. There had been no official notification, no warnings to move out of the village, no time to collect the animals and the grains that were the only savings most of the villagers had, and for close to 2,000 people, no time to save their lives. The villagers had been uneasy about reports that their village might be flooded to save the lands of Zulfiqar Khosa, an influential landlord of the area and a special adviser to the current provincial government. They had set up a rota of men to keep awake and look out for the flood. Yet, when the flood hit, there was little these men could do. The deaths from that village have not been reported in the mainstream media so far. You may ask why, but a young local activist, Zulfiqar (same name as the landlord, different life), had an unequivocal answer: “Because they just won’t―the deaths in Daira Din will never make it to national news.”
Officially counted in the province of Punjab, the area known as the Seraiki Belt has a distinctive cultural texture. Along with Sindh Province, Seraiki-speaking areas are home to some of the biggest feudal holdings in Pakistan. Feudalism, created under British colonial expansion, carries within it exaggerated consolidation of political, religious, and economic power (Gilmartin 1988; Ali 1988; Ansari 1992). Colonial grants of lands to prominent religious families, augmenting their previous landholdings, and their incorporation into the political structure of this relatively late addition to the colonial enterprise created a context where extreme brutality could coexist easily with claims to superior spirituality by virtue of descent. The creation of Pakistan did little to disturb the arrangements set up during colonial rule in this region.
A key threat to the large landholding pir families emerged during the rapid industrialization undertaken by the Ayub regime in the 1960s. Their hold on political power was increasingly challenged by the newly emerging industrial elite. At the same time, leftist movements inspired by the success of the Maoist revolution in China provided some inspiration to local activists. However, the thrust of left activism during this period remained within the larger urban areas (Iqtidar 2010). Toward the end of the 1960s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto provided a platform to, paradoxically, both the left activists and the sidelined landed elite, at a time when the demise of the Ayub regime seemed imminent without any clear replacement in sight from within either the existing political parties or the army. The meteoric rise of Bhutto and the emergence of his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) can be explained primarily through the rift in elite groups where some within the elite were willing to form an alliance with other social groups, including left activists (Tarrow 1998). His rhetoric and some genuinely progressive moves aside, Bhutto’s party was soon the bastion of the very landlords who had feared marginalization under Ayub Khan’s industrialization.
The Seraiki Belt area, where Daira village is located, continues to be a PPP stronghold, although local political families have diversified and hedged their political fortunes, often fielding candidates from opposing parties. The colonial arrangements of power have been augmented in contemporary times through the breakdown of civil bureaucracy facilitated by World Bank–sponsored “devolution.” A progressive seeming idea at first blush (replacing Pakistan’s colonial-type centralized bureaucratic structure with decentralized, local ones), devolution has actually allowed international agencies greater leeway in policy decisions. The decentralized structure by design limited the ability of local officers to shape policy through concentrated challenges to regional problems. They are also ill placed to resist the pressure that politicians exert over the general functioning of local infrastructure. This coming together of local political trajectories and international developmental experiments played itself out in a variety of ways during the floods in the area. Planned breaches in the embankment along the river have not been maintained over the years, and even if they had been, at the time of the current floods local influentials did not allow breaches in their areas. As a result, either ill-planned, last-minute breaches were created by using private and government equipment, such as excavators, or the river forced its way out in a haphazard way when and where it could.
The consequences of these developments were in clear evidence two weeks ago in a medical camp in Kot Adu, located within the Seraiki Belt: children with scabies, boils, and skin rashes; women about to give birth at any moment suffering from gastrointestinal disorders; men with eye infections and more boils; the vast majority suffering from post-traumatic stress. Health problems caused by the flood are not in themselves fatal. In fact, when compared to the severed limbs, crushed spines, and gangrene-infected wounds of the people caught in the earthquake in Pakistan five years ago, these medical problems are minor. It is the fact that they were not treated quickly and competently that is likely to lead to a rapid escalation of severity and complexity. When these problems are coupled with inadequate diet, a continued lack of clean drinking water, and an ongoing uncertainty about the future, the displaced are unlikely to recover quickly. And their anger and frustration may feed into the movements already developing in the region against the extreme imbalance in land holdings, the large “developmental” projects, and in particular, against the expansion of existing and the building of new dams and barrages on the Indus River.
Dams and Floods: An Intimate Relationship
“Areas that had never seen a flood previously have now been flooded,” claimed Shama, one of the women helping organize a camp. She had lost her own house to the flood in Kot Adu. On first hearing this statement I did not realize the import of what she was saying. It was only after repeated assertions and detailed accounts that the real meaning of what the locals were saying became clear. The Indus River has flooded periodically and at certain times in the distant past also caused immense destruction through sudden changes in course, and so forth. However, most of the time there was a pattern to the flooding that those living close to the river had learnt to recognize. The fact that previously unaffected areas have now been flooded is not just because there was a lot of rain. There is no denying the fact that the rainfall was unusual in terms both of its quantity and its persistence, but that alone does not explain the extent of the disaster. Nor do official incompetence, negligence, and indifference in the immediately prior weeks and days. Nor is it just the result of intertwined political and economic interests that the lands of political and feudal elites were protected while those of small farmers were inundated. All of these have exacerbated the scale of the natural calamity. But a key contributor to the flooding in the Kot Adu area has been the faulty extension of Taunsa Barrage, recently funded by the World Bank. To say that these kinds of mega-floods were created in some areas by the very structures―the barrages and dams―that were, paradoxically, meant to contain them may seem scandalous at first, but there is enough evidence to mandate the view.
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.
Ali, Imran. 1988. The Punjab Under Imperialism, 1885–1947. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ansari, Sarah. 1992. Sufi Saints and State Power: The Pirs of Sind 1843–1947. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gadi, Mushtaq. 2010. “Engineering Failures,” Dawn, August 16.
Ghazanfar, Munir. 2008. “Kalabagh Dam and the Water Debate in Pakistan,” Lahore Journal of Policy Studies 2, no. 1 (September).
Gilmartin, David. 1988. Empire and Islam: Punjab and the Making of Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Iqtidar, Humeira. 2010. “Jama‘at-e-Islami Pakistan: Learning from The Left.” In Beyond Crisis: Re-evaluating Pakistan, edited by Naveeda Khan. New Delhi: Routledge.
Tarrow, Sidney. 1998. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.