Pakistan: Unprecedented devastation caused by floods – poor suffer the most

14 million people affected, over 1,500 dead, thousands face starvation According to the UN, 6 million people need urgent aid for survival. They can not survive without much needed relief and aid. The UN is saying that it will launch one of the biggest relief efforts in UN history, in terms of the number of people in need. It targeted about 5 million people after the Indian Ocean tsunami, while the estimated 300,000 homes destroyed in Pakistan rival the numbers seen in Haiti’s devastating earthquake.

But according to National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) figures, the devastation in Pakistan is on much higher scale than earlier estimates. According to NDMA figures, the total number of affected people so far is 11 million, the total of damaged or destroyed homes 750,000, and total affected villages, 8,604. The most damage has been caused to the 8 districts of the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province and 7 districts of Punjab province. So far, 4 districts of Sindh province and some areas of Kashmir, Baluchistan and Gilgit-Biltistan have also been affected.

Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, the elderly and women, are living out in the open without any shelter or tents. They are faced, on the one hand, with very hot and humid weather and, on the other hand, torrential rains. These rains are adding insult to injury. Thousands of people have been stranded in flood waters for days without clean drinking water or food.

Infrastructure has also been affected, with bridges, schools, hospitals, roads and communication facilities wiped out.

The devastation caused by recent floods has been unprecedented. Apart from the immediate losses of lives and public and private properties, the overall impact of the catastrophe may be far more enormous and far reaching than can be currently estimated. In the short-term, food shortages, crop inundation and high food prices are likely to affect every poor and working class person.
Lackluster response

The destruction wrought by persistent flooding is visible almost everywhere in the country. More than 1,500 people have lost their lives, hundreds of thousands of families are now homeless, crops and valuables worth billions of rupees have been destroyed. The government is saying that this destruction is the result of a natural disaster but the fact of the matter is that the level of destruction would not have been so high if the rulers and authorities concerned had tried to do something to improve the situation.

Pakistan is in the middle of the biggest flood disaster in its history. However, what is more disturbing is the grossly inadequate state response to this calamity, which has caused many preventable deaths. It seems that despite repeated disasters, state institutions have learned little from the experience. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) which was formed to deal with natural disasters and emergency situations has failed to deliver. There is complete lack of training and planning in the organisation to cope with such situations. The preparedness and response of the NDMA in the present disaster has itself become a national disaster. This institute was established after the devastating earthquake of 2005. It was led, from the beginning, by an army general. At present it is led by an ex-general. One wonders how such a crucial institution can expect to meet challenges if it does not even purchase equipment or machinery for rescue operations and is marred by lack of funds and trained staff.

Whether it was the earthquake, the cyclone in the coastal areas, landslides and subsequent formation of the lake in the Attabad area in Gilgit or the Margla plane crash, over many years, the state’s capacity to cope with disasters has steadily declined. There is a complete absence of sensitivity to the victims and vision to address their problems. The inadvertent and unmistakable message being conveyed to the people is that they are on their own and should be prepared to fend for themselves. On the other hand, ordinary people have shown a remarkable sense of solidarity and resilience and weathered one disaster after another.

It is worth mentioning here that the Met office informed the concerned authorities that torrential rains were expected during the monsoon season. The Met office also predicted that the rains in the catchment areas of the main rivers might cause high floods. But one wonders why the concerned authorities would not bother to any precautionary measures even after getting the information. The reason is very simple: because the expected victims were the ordinary poor and working masses and not the ‘elite class of Pakistan’. Now, the Prime Minister himself has admitted that the government made the mistake of not informing the people about the possible flooding in time. A lot of precautionary measures could have been taken to minimise the losses. But the bureaucrats, sitting in their comfortable, air conditioned offices, showed their indifference and pathetic attitude towards the poor and working masses once again. The “efforts” of our rulers, main political parties, big business and other state institutions are put in the limelight just to promote their own interests. The federal and provincial governments started the relief and rescue work late and without sufficient planning. The civil bureaucracy once again showed its incapacity, inability and lack of interest in the relief work. The failure of the civil bureaucracy and politicians has once again forced affected people to look towards the army for relief and rescue. The military is the main force involved in the relief work. The army has thus been able to improve its tarnished image and reputation.

Profits before the people
Big business, the industrialists, banks and big traders are preparing to fully utilise this disaster for their own benefit. They have increased the prices of food items, items of daily use, vegetables and fruits. There is a flood of price hikes in the country. The price of sugar has already been increased from 62 to 74 rupees per Kg. The prices of vegetables have been increased by almost 100%! The price of tea has been increased by 30%. The prices for dry milk, packed milk and pulses have also been increased. The central bank has increased interest rates to make loans more expensive. Transporters have increased the fares for trucks and other means of goods transport. In some flood-affected areas, people have been forced to pay 300 to 400% more to transport their goods. The situation is similar with passenger transport. People fear more price hikes, as holy Ramadan (the Muslim month of fast) period has begun. The prices of some food items might even be lower in England and other European countries compared to Pakistan!

The government has already lost control over price mechanisms. The free market economy runs free for big business, while millions of working class people and poor are suffering. The government’s failure to control prices, and the super profits of the handful of rich will make the lives of the already affected people more miserable and intolerable. The greed for super profits will increase further the prices of food and other kitchen items. Even middle class and lower middle class families find it difficult to meet ever-increasing kitchen expenditure. It has once again been proved that Capitalism is a system based on profits and not on the needs of the population. Under Capitalism, people will continue to suffer from the miseries and destruction of both man made and natural disasters. The working masses are suffering from the misery and devastation caused by capitalism. There are enough resources to help the affected people but their fair and equal distribution is required. This is not possible on a capitalist basis. Socialism is needed to provide much needed resources. A socialist planned economy is needed to overcome and prevent the present disaster and other destruction. The nationalisation of big industry, the banks, insurance companies, and other important sectors of economy under the democratic control of workers is the need of the hour.

Disease threat

In the wake of the wide spread death and destruction the recent floods have wrought, the people of the affected areas are now facing another threat: that of epidemics breaking out. Considering the situation on the ground, the spread of waterborne diseases is a very real concern. As per reports, thousands of patients suffering from various waterborne diseases have been treated in several of Sindh’s districts. Reports from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa suggested that over 100,000 people, mostly children, were suffering from diarrhea and gastroenteritis. Skin diseases and other ailments are spreading in flood-hit areas, primarily due to the consumption of contaminated water. Such diseases might also spread to other areas. If the government, and especially the health department, fails to provide proper and adequate medical facilities to the affected people, then a new crisis will emerge in these areas. Clean drinking water and proper sanitation are also necessary to stop the spread of these diseases.

Workers’ and peasants’ relief committees
The affected workers, peasants and rural and urban poor can not trust or depend on the state institutions and government functionaries. It is necessary to form workers and peasants committees to conduct the relief and then rehabilitation and reconstruction work. These committees must be accountable to the affected people and should be accountable to these people. These committees should be responsible for the relief and rescue operations in their respective areas. These committees must work in a transparent and democratic way. Representative district committees should also be formed to co-ordinate the work on district level.

The Progressive Workers Federation and Trade Union Rights Campaign have already initiated workers’ relief committee on a national level. Many national and regional unions have joined the workers relief committees. At the moment, we are conducting relief campaigns in the different parts of the country. We are urging all trade unions and social movements to come together to help the affected people, the majority of whom are workers and peasants. So far we have provided relief to more than 100 people. Many more need our solidarity and support for their survival.

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