Update on Pakistan’s floods

Listen to the Interview Here:

Radio interview with TiffinTalk, an Indian current affairs radioshow

While the breaking news of the Pakistan floods has faded from the front pages of newspapers, only to be replaced by what sounds like flood induced damage to unfinished buildings at the Commonwealth Games, the fallout from the catastrophe is still very real.  As a matter of fact, for the scale of the disaster that Pakistan faced during this year’s monsoon, the amount of aid it received was stunningly low.  To give us a better understanding of the floods, we are joined by Imad Ahmed.  Imad is a journalist who has published opinion editorials in The New York Times/International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe, Internationale Politik and Pakistan’s The Friday Times, where he served as Features Editor. He has also managed political and social campaigns in the USA and Pakistan and is currently pursuing a Master of International Business at The Fletcher School of Tufts University.  Imad, thank you for joining us.

Can you start us off by giving us a brief timeline of events?

Sure, I’ll be happy to. So at a very high level, the floods started late July. The extent to which they would devastate was not known at the time to anybody since Pakistan often experiences monsoon flooding.  About 2,000 people were killed.  The physical damage caused by the floods peaked by early August with about 1/5th of Pakistan under water – about the size of England.  About one million homes were destroyed and about 17 million people left homeless.  Researchers at Ball State University estimated that Pakistan had sustained over $5 billion in damages to buildings, transportation, and agriculture.  Meanwhile, the World Health Organization estimated that, of those displaced, only about 1.2 million people have access to safe water supplies.  So that left 10-15 million people exposed to dangerous water supplies.  And about 200 health facilities have been destroyed as well, so there have been many reports of respiratory tract infection and diarrhea.

Pakistan’s politicians, meanwhile, took a lackadaisical approach. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari first visited affected areas a full two weeks after the floods had begun. He had been away inspecting his property in London and Paris.  Little wonder, then, that few nations were donating generously to Pakistan, suspicious of how their donations would be spent by a government led by a president known as “Mr 10%”.

By mid-August, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon was appealing to the world for more aid, calling the floods the worst aid disaster he had ever seen.  The IMF, which has refused to relax its monetary conditions on its debt issued to Pakistan in 2008, and which has refused to cancel Pakistan’s debt as it did for Haiti because, by its definition, Pakistan is not a low-income country, has estimated that the floods will broaden Pakistan’s trade deficit by $1 billion this year. And Pakistan’s external debt is predicted to reach $74 billion by 2014 as it works to help flood victims.  Now Pakistan is currently servicing $3 billion annually, almost three times the amount spent on health care, so you can imagine that that’s not a pretty scenario.

I’m afraid that nation states have done little on their own for Pakistan.  If pledges are to be followed up on, the most generous commitment of money has actually come from an individual, Malik Riaz Hussain, chairman of Bahria Town, who has committed $2 billion, 75% of his claimed fortune.  The World Bank has given Pakistan $1 billion in interest-free loans and the IMF has promised $450 million.  Until mid-August, when the floods were at their worst, the most generous donation by a Muslim country had been a measly $5 million from Kuwait.

You mentioned that at one point a fifth of Pakistan was under water, about the size of England. The scale of this disaster is something I don’t think many people understand.  The number of people affected, 21 million like you just mentioned, is more than the 2004 Indian Tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake combined. 

In the face of all this destruction, the dissemination of information has become very difficult, so I want to talk about something you mention on your website – Pakreport.org.  It’s a website started by a Pakistani TED fellow, that aggregates information on relief efforts and puts it on a map of Pakistan.  Can you talk about this website and then what you have learned from it to give us an idea of the situation on the ground?

The website, PakReport.org, is an example of how democracy can be used to coordinate efforts.  It’s an open sourced platform so that relief agencies can aggregate their knowledge, their information on what the situation on the ground is and report what work they’re doing and where so there is not a duplication of efforts and people in those areas can report that “we need help.” Transparency is key to holding democratic governments accountable and maintaining their credibility.  So I would advocate that people, the government especially, start using PakReport.org if they’re not already.  There’s a demonstration in Muzaffarabad against the government on their distribution cards, this was a submitted report on September 22.  There’s a report from southwest Punjab saying “our village was under flood water, now we need help to rehabilitate.”  There’s a report about how a dike has burst and affected four villages.  So that’s what it looks like on the ground.  But let me read to you the account of a doctor who visited the rural areas of Sindh on the 21st of August:

‘Khairpur at this moment is housing a huge bulk of displaced people from Larkana, Jacobabad, Shikarpur and many smaller villages – the registered displaced people are now more than 50,000. Around 120 camps are housing people in small clusters – In all camps the majority by far are children – Almost all the children are sick, ranging from stunted growth, severe malnourishment, diarrhoea and skin problems.

Almost all the women are anaemic, weak, malnourished, and perpetually pregnant or breast-feeding, and the sad part is there is no milk but the baby is still latched, always. Perhaps 20-25 per cent are pregnant. What does one do about these patients? We tried sending them to hospitals but common complaints were ‘they prescribe medicines we cannot afford, tests we cannot afford, doctors are never there and, in any case, doctors do not treat us.’

So, where the government – that’s the end of her account – where the government and politicians have been absent, there have been credible relief organizations such as the Aga Khan Foundation, FOCUS, Islamic Relief, Hand, Sungi, et cetera. Even US Marines have been helping people on the ground in Pakistan.  But so have Islamist groups such as Falah-e-Insaniyat, an alleged front organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is believed to be behind the Mumbai 2008 attacks.  Also, Jamaat-e-Islami’s charitable wing, Al Khidmet Foundation, they claim to have unique access to villages and far flung areas of Pakistan.

You wrote on your website that Pakreport.org fills an important void in the relief effort because people have little faith in the government to coordinate relief, how would you rate the government’s response?

Well, as I mentioned a little earlier it took the President a full two weeks to visit the flood affected area.  Hina Rabbani Khar, one of his ministers, visited an area a week after the floods had begun and she was pelted with stones by protesters.  But to be fair, the National Disaster Management Authority of Pakistan has been employing 150 boats and about 30 helicopters, a few of them coming from the USA, and they claim to have rescued over 150,000 people.

Unfortunately, not all of Pakistan’s military resources have been put to use for rescue purposes.  Nearly one million people under threat from flood water in Jacobabad were informed that their nearby Shahbaz Airbase, could not be used for rescue operations because, according to the Health Secretary, the airbase is controlled by the United States.  And, as Tariq Ali has noted, it was not necessary to add as those on the base were busy arming and dispatching drones to hit villages in northern Pakistan.

That aside, there is a huge amount of distrust in the government of Pakistan from the world at-large and from its own citizens.  The world at-large, you can see, has contributed so little money.  The President’s sister, who is a member of the National Assembly and she also heads her party’s women’s wing, convened a meeting of rich Karachiites and she wanted to set up a fund in the names of her niece and nephew, the President’s son and daughter, that the millionaires would contribute to.  A businessman explained that they would contribute food, clothes, shelter but not money and the meeting ended abruptly.  I mean it shows how little faith people have in anyone related to the government.  I think the government set up a number of funds at the provincial level as well as at the national level, the military has set up a fund – they’re all uncoordinated.

I want to talk to you about India’s role here.  India has provided 25 million USD in aid to Pakistan, about a fourth of the UK, a sixth of the United States, and an even smaller fraction of China with their recent additional pledge of $200 million more.  Do you think India has done enough using this situation to its advantage in building a better relationship with Pakistan?

Well, I mean, the fact that India has offered and the fact that Pakistan has accepted this nominal amount shows that there can be goodwill between two states when one is going through a national crisis.  As I mentioned, there is a prevailing feeling that the Pakistan government is  not the best institution to give money to if you want to see the greatest output because of its inefficiency and because of its corruption.  Given Pakistan’s propensity to spend donor money on arms, especially from the USA, it’s understandable why the Indian government, Pakistan’s military rival, would feel uncomfortable giving a substantial amount.

That’s not to say, however, that Indian individuals, billionaires in particular, cannot give to relief organizations with broad networks across Pakistan delivering aid.  These organizations include Focused Humanitarian Assistance, Hands, Sungi, Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation, Edhi Foundation.  These are secular organizations that are doing good work on the ground and I would encourage Indians to be generous to their Pakistani brethren.

Alright, Imad, I want to end by asking what you think will be the long term effects of this flood, both in terms of physical damage and political damage done at home and abroad?

So the EU has made a momentous – it has done something very worthwhile and thanks to the British government for pushing this initiative forward.  They have given preferential trade terms to Pakistan to help Pakistan’s afflicted businesses get back on their feet.  I think this is exactly what is needed; it would be great if the USA could also do this for Pakistan and other countries could also do this for Pakistan.  The IMF can do more.  They are still requiring Pakistan to adhere to strict monetary policies and conditions that they attached to a loan that they issued to Pakistan in 2008 – it’s not a small loan, it’s a $10 billion loan – they should really relax those conditions.   When the earthquake hit Haiti, which didn’t cost the country as much in terms of infrastructure, in terms of loss of agriculture, in terms of loss of livelihoods, they actually cancelled some of Haiti’s debt.  They cite bureaucratic reasons: because Pakistan doesn’t fit into their category of nations of Lowest Income Countries, they can’t do the same for Pakistan.  Really it’s a matter of political will and if the world wants to see Pakistan get up from its knees and prosper and become economically sustainable and no longer become a hot bed of terrorism, then we really need help and a lot of it.

That was Imad Ahmed, a journalist who has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, Internationale Politik, and was the Features Editor for Pakistan’s Friday Times.  Imad, thanks so much for talking to us.

Thank you very much, Arthor.

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