flooding in Pakistan

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For the Old Mole Variety Hour August 23, 2010.

The well-read red has been reading about the floods in Pakistan, which UN officials have called the worst disaster in decades. But as is usual these days, this purportedly natural disaster has some very human causes, and the politics of global and governmental response suggest there will be more suffering to come.

First, let's look at what is happening. Since late July, an unusually heavy monsoon season has caused flash floods and widespread flooding, beginning in the northern part of Pakistan, but sweeping south and now affecting between one-fifth and one-third of the country. At least 1600 people and 200,000 animals have died; 400,000 people have reported serious illness, including waterborne diseases like cholera; 8 million people need emergency shelter; and altogether between 20 million and 40 million have been affected. In addition to facing the destruction of lives, homes, and agricultural land, Pakistanis are threatened by land mines dislodged by the floods. The UN and relief agencies have noted urgent needs for clean drinking water, food, clothing, shelter and medicine. Although some news reports have suggested that the worst of the flooding is over, we should be as skeptical of this as of the claims of the resolution of the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. The monsoon season continues into September. It's still raining in Lahore.

So, what has caused these floods? Don't monsoons happen every year? What's the big deal this time? Well, yes, monsoon season is part of a natural cycle. But as the World Meteorological Organization reports, this year it's one of a number of recent severe weather-related events, which match projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of "more frequent and more intense extreme weather events due to global warming." In addition to the "monsoonal flooding in Pakistan," the World Meteorological Organization cites "the record heatwave and wildfires in the Russian Federation, rain-induced landslides in China, and calving of a large iceberg from the Greenland ice sheet" along with "droughts and fires in Australia and a record number of high-temperature days in the eastern United States of America." As the WMO notes, "Climate extremes have always existed, but all the events cited above compare with, or exceed in intensity, duration or geographical extent, the previous largest historical events."

In addition, the effects of this extreme weather have been exacerbated by inadequate flood control. Writing on SocialistWorker.org, Snehal Shingavi points out that "the massive dam and canal network that threads through Pakistan was built in the interests of large landowners and big capitalists rather than the people. This has meant that infrastructure repair and emergency relief have been extremely lopsided, and organized around preserving the interests of the landed elite rather than around flood prevention." In an interview on Democracy Now, Mushtaq Gadi argues that a central cause of the destructive flooding was the breaching of a number of levies, dykes, and dams, especially the large dam known as the Taunsa Barrage. The World Bank allocated 140 million dollars to a rehabilitation of the Taunsa Barrage, which was completed just six months ago. But the supposed rehabilitation, which took two and a half years, failed to take into account the interests of those living in low-lying areas or the advice of ecologists and water activists.

The response to the disaster has been similarly inadequate, and similarly revealing. Government aid to flood-affected areas has been arriving late, and in insufficient amounts, and the "gap between the food being distributed and the large number of people desperate to eat has led to fighting breaking out, making matters even worse." International aid has also been slow and slim, less than that provided after the 2004 tsunami or the Haitian earthquake earlier this year. Observers have offered a number of explanations for this reluctance, including "donor fatigue" and fear that government corruption will prevent aid from reaching those that need it. But it's also been attributed to a fear of aiding terrorists. Given the failures of the Pakistan government to provide timely or adequate aid, private charities, including religious ones, have stepped in to help. But President Zardari has announced plans to "crack down on charities with alleged links to banned militant groups, insisting that they must not be allowed to distribute aid to flood victims." In this, he echoes the policy of the US. John Kerry, for instance, on a visit to the flood-ravaged nation, commented that the objective of the US aid is humanitarian but "obviously there is a national security interest. We do not want additional jihadis, extremists, coming out of a crisis." Journalist Abdus Sattar Ghazali interprets this, reasonably enough, as indicating that the "US aid effort is not motivated by concern for the estimated 20 million Pakistanis impacted by the floods but is driven by the need to prop up the client government of President Asif Ali Zardari, on which the US relies to wage a proxy war on militants in Pakistan's northern areas bordering Afghanistan."

US gestures toward humanitarian aid seem unlikely, anyway, to reverse the negative view of the US held by Pakistanis, who have been subject since 2004 to bombing attacks from remote-piloted US drones. According to figures from pakistanbodycount.org, these drone attacks have killed more Pakistani civilians than the current floods (though not as quickly, to be sure). The latest reported drone attack was just this past weekend , which perhaps explains why the Shabaz airbase, allegedly controlled by the US, is unavailable as a staging area for rescue and relief missions. To put US priorities in perspective, we have promised Pakistan 150 million dollars in humanitarian aid. But we have been regularly giving them about 1.5 billion dollars a year in military aid.

So what is to be done? Certainly, if individuals can afford it, we can make charitable contributions. Peter Rothberg of the Nation magazine has collected information and links to a number of organizations actively working to address the crisis, including the Global Fund for Women, Doctors Without Borders, and UNICEF. The Portland-based group Mercy Corps is also on the ground providing food and water. In addition, the Labor Relief Campaign, a project of the Labor Education Foundation in Pakistan, has launched an appeal for help, but also a call to action. They have called on the Pakistan government to "refuse to pay foreign debt and divert the amount to the relief and rehabilitation of flood-hit communities." They note that "Currently Pakistan is paying about US $3 billion on debt servicing every year. [and] Pakistan's present foreign debt of $54 billion is increasing. . . . The government can also invoke the international protocol of 'state of necessity,' introduced by UN Human Rights Commission in 1999, to refuse the payment of debt." Similarly, the Labor Party of Karachi and Pakistan's National Trade Union Federation last week issued a call for action, demanding a popular international movement to Cancel the debt, Cut defense spending, Provide international assistance as grants rather than loans, Redirect US military spending, Provide reparations for climate change, and Ensure democratic and transparent reconstruction.

Image above from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pakistan-geo-stub.png

 

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