Pakistan under water

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The recent floods have caused devastation in Pakistan, leading to an estimated 20 million people losing their homes and livelihoods. Karachi socialist Sartaj Khan tells Geoff Brown about the scandalous government response to a disaster that was anything but natural.

Before and after. Photo: Nasa

The monsoon happens every year. Why are these floods so disastrous?

There has been a change in the pattern of rainfall. In the last two decades we have seen a repeated cycle of acute shortage of rainfall for two or three years and then a flood like this. Last winter we saw heavy snowfalls. In many areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (the former North West Frontier Province) people experienced the first snow in 40 years.

There are different reasons for flooding in the mountain regions of the north and in the Indus plains of Punjab and Sindh to the south. Both are the result, in one way or another, of capitalist development. In the Himalaya and Karakorum mountains, a region comprising Kashmir, Gilgit-Balistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, deforestation, mega development projects like dams and highways, and the market economy are the main causes.

Studies show that as capitalist market relations were introduced into the region the common lands were occupied and subsistence agriculture was replaced by market farming. In much of Malakand in the north west, for example, in the pre-independence era there was little degradation of the environment. As the area was formally incorporated into Pakistan in the 1960s, everything changed. The Pakistani state and landlords occupied common lands and grazing areas, including forests. They created landlessness, displacement and the destruction of the pastoral grazing economy, greatly disturbing the traditional way of life. But these changes had great environmental consequences. This process also contributed to the rise of the Taliban in the region.

The process of deforestation has also been closely associated with the policies of the state. In the past landlords were mainly involved in the destruction of forests. In the 1980s, the era of Afghan Jihad backed by the US and Pakistan army, a new class of Islamist appeared: people from the middle class Islamic parties like Jamat-I-Islami were allowed to play havoc with forests with help from army officers. Ministers and forest officials, traders and army officers often set up alliances commonly known as the "timber mafia". Now timber has become a lucrative business in Pakistan thanks to the policies of successive governments. All of them, especially military dictatorships, use it for bargaining and political manoeuvring. This process accelerated after the introduction of neoliberal policies in the 1990s.

In the Indus plains, in Punjab and Sindh provinces, there were other factors involved. The modern irrigation system in the region was created by the British colonial power - the Raj - after the defeat of the great "Mutiny" in 1857. Loyal Pirs (hereditary saints, often wealthy, controlling local shrines) and landlords were awarded land in what were called the "colonised" areas. Forests were cleared for cultivation and indigenous people were displaced. In the process a class of loyal landowners was created and the region contributed to revenue generation and production of raw materials such as cotton - an important contribution to Britain's "industrial revolution" on top of previous plunder and looting.

Successive governments after independence and partition in 1947 added to the destruction of the environment with the introduction of "green revolution" technologies - the construction of big dams and barrages and canal colonies in Sindh and Punjab, often with the help of the US and institutions like the World Bank. Natural floodplains and wetlands that used to absorb floodwaters were taken for farming, using chemical pesticides, fertilisers and seeds provided by multinationals. This increased environmental destruction, food insecurity, poverty and inequality.

What is the response of the government to the floods? What is the role of the media?

To save the dams and barrages, areas have been flooded by creating breaches in the bunds, the embankments designed to protect from floods. Typically these are areas where ordinary people live, especially the rural poor and slum dwellers. Those living on the banks of the rivers are often the poorest of the poor. For example, the giant Warsak dam in the tribal area in the north west was saved at the expense of thousands of acres of populated land. In Kot Mittin, southern Punjab, 100,000 people had their land submerged while a posh area nearby was protected by building a second defence line. Jacobabad, a city of half a million, has been inundated in order to secure the giant Guddu Barrage. Anwer from the north west told the Socialist newspaper, "It was late at night when our town was flooded. We kept asking about the place of breach in the river bank but it was kept secret by officials."

Officials are accused of deliberately not informing people in advance because then they would bear the responsibility of evacuation. Ali Hassan from Mingora, the centre of the Swat region which was briefly under the control of the Pakistan Taliban, and brutally occupied in 2009 by the military, causing around 2 million to flee their homes, explained, "Instead of helping people, the army has secured its installations and rescued troops."

Nawaz added that "the army started emergency chair lifts over the river, receiving RS100 from each person crossing the river [75p; approximately a daily wage for a labourer]".

The policy of the government can be described as "wait and see". The chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province told a press conference that the scale of the calamity was too great to deal with; it was out of the scope of the provincial government. The government was completely absent from relief work for the first week. In Muzaffargarh, an old city now entirely under water, those who dominate electoral politics are not seen. Meanwhile the price of food rockets as big suppliers exploit the situation. Transport fares are rising too. A truck that used to charge RS10,000 [£75] to take 20 people from Jacobabad to Karachi now charges RS50,000 and the Balochistan provincial government is stopping refugees fleeing to safety.

The elites of the various political parties have formed a coalition at the top but the ranks below them are fighting and blaming each other for their inability to cope with the disaster. They are accusing each other of causing flooding by making breaches to save their own lands. A federal minister, together with soldiers and officials, breached the Jamali Bypass to protect the US airbase at Shehbaz, causing flooding, the inundation of the town of Dera Allahyar and the displacement of 800,000 people. The military commander of Jacobabad was transferred from his post accused of failing to protect the base there, which has F16s and drones used to attack and kill hundreds in Afghanistan and threaten Iran. It is, however, not available for relief flights despite having the only usable airstrip in the area. The allegations and counter-allegations go on and on.

The media criticise the government on the one hand and on the other accept what the ruling class wants people to think. They're saying that it's a natural catastrophe, it's the duty of everyone to contribute and the resources of the state are too small to manage, given the scale of the destruction.

What are ordinary people saying? What are they doing?

A small shopkeeper described how "it's not any government or NGO relief agency that helps but common people from other areas help out by providing food like rice and lentils". People are bitterly criticising the government. They have no faith in it. They see it as totally corrupt. It isn't just that the president, Asif Zardari - possibly one of the most corrupt politicians in the world, nicknamed "Mr 10 percent" because of the view of his take from government contracts - stayed in Britain and France at the start of the crisis. Even more damning, the government has acknowledged its own bankruptcy by setting up a national commission to distribute relief funds, composed only of so-called "independent" figures and excluding all politicians. So we have a government that sees itself as unable to lead in a crisis. What are governments for? And, people ask, will the flood relief commission be allowed to do its work? Or will it find itself being used as cover for politicians stealing from the relief funds? Will the army hierarchy, now effectively in control of many flooded areas, yield power to distribute relief to the commission?

On top of all this, people see the contrast between the efforts of ordinary people to help flood victims and the slow response of the US and its allies to assist in the relief efforts while they have been only too keen to supply over $1 billion a year in "counter-insurgency" aid. It's OK to give the Pakistan government money to kill people but not so good when it comes to saving lives.

Who are the Islamists the government says are such a threat? What are they doing?

The Islamists are those who, in one way or another, have been neglected in the process of development. They come from the classes that have been marginalised or destroyed by the successive development policies imposed by the imperialist institutions and countries - the IMF, the World Bank, US, Britain and so on. Many Islamic charities, those not challenging the government, have set up camps and are providing help.

How should socialists respond to David Cameron when he accuses Pakistan of exporting terror? Are the Pakistan secret services helping the Taliban?

We mustn't take Cameron's statements at face value. The resistance in Afghanistan and the areas of Pakistan occupied by the military goes on. The army is unable to suppress it. In some areas there are ongoing military operations. In others there are efforts at "reconciliation". None of this is working.

The strength of the resistance has led to bitter divisions inside the ruling elites in the US and Britain, and among the various factions in the Pakistan army. European Nato forces are bribing the Taliban while the US government is negotiating with them and the Pakistan secret services are helping them, as the recent Wikileaks exposures showed. The Pakistan military still believe that Afghanistan must be an ally to give them "strategic depth" in the event of another war with India - always seen as the main enemy.

The US and Britain applaud the efforts of Pakistan in the "war on terror" on the one hand and criticise it on the other. They want to cover their own defeats.

How can socialists in Britain give solidarity?

Socialists in Britain must both oppose the "war on terror" and help generate funds for the people affected by war and flood in Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Infrastructure

The Indus Basin Irrigation System is the largest irrigation system in the world: three large dams, 85 small dams, 19 barrages, 25,000 miles of canals and 700,000 tube wells. It irrigates 45 million acres, an area 50 percent greater than England. Almost all Pakistan's agriculture depends on it. Half of Pakistan's 160 million people live on the land, producing a quarter of Pakistan's GDP. It is the biggest infrastructure investment in Pakistan, valued at approximately $300 billion.