In June, we knew we were expecting heavier than usual rains. In July, the rains came. It’s mid-August, it’s still raining and a significant part of Pakistan is under water. According to the UN, 14 million people have been affected, over a billion acres of land is under water, cotton and rice crops have been destroyed and people have lost their livelihood. In fact, they have lost everything they own. Infrastructure has been wiped out, millions of people have been cut off from the rest of the country and are dependent on the airdropping of supplies. Airdrops have their limitations; the weak – women, children, the elderly and infirm – depend on the charity of the strong and if there isn’t enough to go around they are left to die.
The latest casualty is Sindh. Where were her powerful landlords? Having seen Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa ravaged and southern Punjab drown, one wonders why they (the leaders of the three provinces) didn’t meet to work on a plan to mitigate the scale of the disaster. It’s easy to criticise Syed Khursheed Shah for not allowing the bunds to be breached at Ali Wahan so that the water could flow in the direction of the Thar desert. He looked after his own land and villages and a significant part of his constituency was spared. Had there been any kind of interest in the fate of Sindh, perhaps some important decisions, like where to breach the bunds, could have been taken collectively, motivating our huge population to roll up their sleeves to dig water channels and courses to steer the water towards the deserts.
How are we going to deal with the problem? If we have decided that the government is incapable of doing anything other than standing en masse on the Sukkar barrage and praying for the floods to recede, what are the rest of us capable of? Has anyone articulated a plan? I have not heard much said at any ‘influential’ or policymaking level about dealing with those responsible for deforestation, for encroachments in the river beds or for building dams and reservoirs. Who will rebuild the collapsed infrastructure? The bridges, roads and rail links? The government? With what? Where will the money come from?
According to journalist Talat Hussain, a vital bridge link will cost approximately Rs8 million. Doesn’t sound like something a big corporation, a wealthy philanthropist or a group of citizens couldn’t easily finance. There is suspicion and distrust; unconvinced that money goes to the right place, no one wants to contribute to any kind of official fund. A special flood fund could be set up or organisations and individuals could finance projects. We build schools, hospitals, homes for the poor, why not a bridge? There are enough experts out there to ensure that we build it to last. But if we were to build it what role should the government play? For starters, they need to open a one-window approval procedure so the bridge project doesn’t fall down before it starts. No pay offs, kickbacks, favoured contractors or approvals from countless departments. It can assist by undertaking to reduce tariffs on materials and by not holding up consignments at customs or en route to the site.
We need to do this in some sort of a cohesive, organised way. If we want to pull ourselves out of this misery we cannot sit around talking in drawing rooms looking helpless. There are millions far more helpless than us who need direction and leadership. They need to see that there is a plan and that they can be instrumental in implementing it. Building bridges and cutting water courses means jobs, jobs mean money and money means you can buy seed to sow the next harvest. So is there a leader out there in this country of 170 million people who is ready to step forward and take up this challenge?
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2010.
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