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Pakistan – the Slow-Motion Earthquake

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FLYING near Peshawar towards Islamabad 35,000 feet above the ground, the morning sun begins to rise over the dusty, wrinkled terrain below me. Striking foothills lead to jagged mountains.

Somewhere in the haze to my west are the Khyber Pass, and the road to Afghanistan.

It’s then that I see the first signs of Pakistan’s flood damage. Huge swathes of mud smear the ground where the mighty Indus River, a river that runs through Pakistan from the north to south, has burst its banks.

I’m accompanying the Al-Imdaad Foundation of South Africa. This aid organisation has 330 tons of aid on the ground waiting to be distributed.

Pakistan is reeling from its worst-ever natural disaster, and has asked the international community for help.

180, 000 square kilometres of agricultural land have been flooded, 20 million people have been displaced and Pakistan’s economic breadbasket – the Indus River Valley – has been totally devastated.

Even a developed country would reel from such a blow; the equivalent is South Africa completely losing its agricultural sector in the Cape Province and Natal, and half our population being rendered homeless.

The floods started in late July. Record monsoons, heavy downpours in the Baluchistan mountains to the west, and unseasonally early snow melts in the Hindu Kush range to the north, all drained simultaneously into the tributaries of the Indus River.

A mass of water surged into the Indus valley that had not been seen in living memory. To make matter worse, the Indus river-mouth in Karachi was blocked when spring tides prevented its floodwaters from flowing into the Arabian Sea.

Nobody could have been prepared. Pakistan’s complex system of irrigation channels, some thousands of years old, overflowed as far as 50 kilometres inland.

As I soon discover, the Pakistan disaster – just the latest in a disturbing chain of global warming events – is difficult to comprehend. Only 1,600 people drowned, yet its social and environmental impact is mind-boggling.  

Months afterwards, low-lying regions such as the Sindh are still under water. The floodplain extends from horizon to horizon. And even as I write, the Manchar Lake in the southern Sindh province, normally 500 square kilometres, is still twice its original size.

Pakistan’s farmers have lost their crops, their livestock, their homes and their villages. The Indus River valley, one of the earth’s oldest civilisational cradles, has become the world’s biggest squatter camp.

We fly into the tree-lined capital of Islamabad, and meet with government officials. Qumar Zaman Kaira, the Federal Minister of Information and Broadcasting, bravely tells us that the floods are a calamity from God, but also an opportunity for Pakistan.

There is no other way to understand it, he says, outlining his government’s plans for aid. A special flood tax and a halt on other development projects will raise some of the capital needed, but not all.

Minister for Food, Agriculture and Livestock, Nazar Muhammad Gondal, comments that the farmers need to get on their feet as soon as possible. Pakistan desperately needs money for this.

“If we don’t plant crops people are going to starve,” another state official tells me, “we already have to deal with the effects of the 2006 earthquake and the extremists. Pakistan is reeling.”

We leave Islamabad. Its cool, fresh highlands make way for a steamy tropical fug as we reach the Indus plain. Garishly decorated trucks bounce over worsening roads, and we begin to pass the soggy ruins of villages.

At a historical graveyard I notice watermarks on an ancient mausoleum. Here, the floodwaters had risen to nearly 5 metres. Now surrounded by rancid pools, the land is still too wet for resettlement.

In the Punjab at Muzaffer Gharr, I talk to Jaffer Quraish, a 29 year-old village headman.

“When the government told us the waters were coming, we didn’t believe it. None of our old people could ever remember being flooded, and when the waters did come, we lost everything,” he said.

I go on a walkabout. A half-naked man sitting in the ruins of his collapsed house apologises for not being able to make me a pot of tea. People crowd around. Everybody has got a story to tell.

I encounter an endless landscape of shattered communities. Many have not received aid. They complain that the government has not helped them.  But how can I explain that no government on earth, let alone Pakistan’s, would be able to cope with this kind of environmental disaster?

I discover a young mother nursing her infant son with a fever. Although it’s autumn, the mercury is still nearly 40 degrees. Keeping him cool is almost impossible, and the nearest hospital is hours away.

There are no ablution facilities or running water, and I hope this boy’s illness is not a harbinger of things to come.

In the next few days we venture south to the Sindh province, home of Pakistan’s Sufis, and one of the worst affected areas. It’s been months since the water came down, but the Sindh looks like a swampland. People huddle on the higher ground under tarpaulins.

At Shahdad Kot we encounter the worst scenes of misery. It’s there that I see real hunger. These are the poorest of the poor, labourers on feudal lands. Most had nothing, even before the floods.

But the true Pakistani, I discover, is a dignified person. I’m amazed at how polite and reserved they are. When aid is handed out, there is no pushing, shoving or stampedes. On every other aid mission I’ve been on, there have been near riots.

A bescarved urchin has become attached to us. We think “she’s” a girl until I notice that “she’s” actually a boy. His name is Ahmad ‘Ali, and his hair is falling out due to malnutrition. The scarf is to hide his shame.

When I find an interpreter, Ahmad ‘Ali tells us that he wants food. “I see the helicopters in the sky, but we get no food.  We are hungry, we need food,” he repeats in a husky voice.

 It’s our last day. The sun sinks over Shahdad Kot’s dusty tent camps. The last of the aid has been disbursed in an official ceremony. 3,000 families now have clothing, cooking utensils, bedding and – importantly – food for about six weeks.

South Africa’s Deputy High Commissioner, Cassim Peer, who attended the ceremony comments that Pakistan’s flood was like witnessing a “slow motion earthquake.”

It’s an accurate assessment, I feel.

But then, just before I leave for the bus, I see a teenage girl carrying a 5-litre plastic container of drinking water on her head.

It glows, back-lit in the sun, and I realise that its contents are more precious to her than a thousand bars of gold.


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