FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 41

Political gains from flood pains

A video of a flood victim from Sindh has gone viral on social media, in which he says they have been asked by authorities to take an oath that they would vote for a particular party in the next election or ration would not be provided to them. The political wrangling continues between the coalition government and the opposition despite increasing devastation and both sides are trying to gain the maximum benefit from the situation by blaming each other for the losses.

It is a familiar scene every year in Pakistan. Floods play havoc with lives and property of thousands of people in the monsoon season and the rulers and politicians reach flooded areas for a photo opportunity with the victims instead of taking practical steps to stop flooding on a permanent basis. The situation has repeated itself for decades and seeing the simplicity of the people of Pakistan and the smartness of the rulers and politicians, one fears many generations will see footages and pictures of prime ministers and chief ministers in the media, wading through floodwaters, taking an aerial view of flooded areas in their planes and helicopters or distributing relief items among victims. In his days as Punjab chief minister, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had even bought himself long boots to wade through floodwaters to express solidarity with flood affectees every year. We were informed by the media that people were “surprised” to see him among themselves and it happened every year. However, they did not question him as to why he had spent billions of dollars on metro train and bus projects in Lahore, Islamabad and Multan and avoided building spurs on rivers to save them from flooding?

According to the latest report by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), at least 937 people have been killed and 1,343 others injured since 14 June. Sixty-six districts have been officially declared to be ‘calamity hit’ by the government of Pakistan – 31 in Balochistan, 23 in Sindh, nine in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and three in Punjab. The number of calamity-declared districts is expected to rise as rains continue to fall. Estimates say some 33 million people have been affected. Over 218,000 houses have been destroyed and another 452,000 damaged. Livelihoods are also being heavily impacted – more than 793,900 livestock – a critical source of sustenance and livelihoods for many families – have died, of which some 63pc are in Balochistan and 25pc in Punjab. Around 2 million acres of crops and orchards have also been impacted, including at least 304,000 acres in Balochistan, 178,000 acres in Punjab and some 1.54 million acres in Sindh. Damage to infrastructure has further worsened the humanitarian situation, as partial or complete destruction of over 3,000 km of roads and 145 bridges impedes the ability of people to flee to safer areas or to travel to access markets, healthcare, or other vital services, and restricts the delivery of aid to people in need. Internet outages have also been reported. Provisional data from provincial education departments shows that at least 17,566 schools have been damaged or destroyed: 15,842 schools in Sindh, 544 in Balochistan and 1,180 in Punjab. Additionally, at least 5,492 schools are reportedly being used to accommodate displaced people. A rapid needs assessment (RNA) conducted in 10 districts of Balochistan found that 977 classrooms were completely destroyed, while minor damage was reported in 975 classrooms, and 577 schools were being used as shelter. The Ministry of Finance warned that recent floods have adversely affected standing Kharif crops, specifically cotton, which may impact the economic outlook of the country.

Billions of rupees are needed annually to rehabilitate victims while they can be saved from floods at a much less cost. Pakistan has been suffering floods almost every year for decades but successive governments failed to take steps to mitigate the threat. Billions of rupees are spent for the rehabilitation of flood-hit people but little is spent to prevent deluges which affect people of rural areas almost every year and add to rising poverty in the country.

Pakistan has suffered heavily due to floods in its 68-year history, primarily in the absence of a disaster management mechanism. According to the Federal Flood Commission (FFC), Pakistan suffered 21 major floods; in 1950, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1995, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. The floods affected 599,459 square kilometres, killed 11,239 precious human lives and caused losses worth over Rs39 billion to the national economy. The first catastrophe, which hit the country in 1950, was the deadliest in terms of human losses. It claimed 2,190 lives and flooded 10,000 villages, spreading over an area of 17,920 square kilometres. The floods in 2010 were the second deadliest. They took 1,985 lives and inundated 17, 553 villages over 160,000-square kilometres, affecting 21 million people. During 2011 and 2012, floods claimed 516 and 571 lives respectively.

Cumulatively in 2010, 2011 and 2012, Pakistan lost 3,072 precious lives and $16 billion. The National Disaster Management Authority assessment shows floods in the last five years have proved more disastrous to the national economy than the calamities of the last 63 years’ put together. Pakistan suffers a loss of around $800 million each year. The floods have affected every area of social infrastructure from housing, health and education to irrigation, transport and communication, water supply and sanitation and energy sectors. The agriculture sector, which is a source of livelihood of Pakistan’s major population, is badly affected, followed by the private sector and industries in economic sectors.

When it rains in Pakistan it also rains in India but it attempts to mitigate damage to its people and land by releasing water into Pakistani rivers. It releases floodwater into the Chenab river with inevitable downstream consequences for communities living along the river bank. Everybody knows monsoon rains hit Pakistan every year in June and the season normally ends in the first week of September. During this period, the country receives heavy rains which cause flooding in various areas. But the government and its departments are always caught off-guard. They not only fail to stop floods but also mitigate the suffering of people. The annual monsoon rains that affect the whole subcontinent are entirely predictable and their effects may be curtailed. But they cause more losses in Pakistan than other countries of the region.

The problem of flooding is worsening every year and poses a significant national threat in terms of the steady economic erosion, loss of livestock and crops and continued destruction of poor-quality housing. The government should come up with an effective mechanism and determination to counter the threat presented by an annual natural phenomenon which worsens the cycle of poverty every year. There are also reports of misappropriation of relief funds every year. It is time the rulers and politicians stopped making fun of flood-hit people and took practical steps for their protection.