August 23, 2010 | 4:16 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
My cousin Musheer picks me up from the Sukkur airport. On the drive home we pass a tent camp under the moonlight. These days I cannot hear or think the word ‘camp’ without simultaneous echoes of ‘concentration’, ‘ghetto’, ‘misery’, ‘disease’ and ‘death’ in my head. The triangle tops, painted with dollops of white from the moon, remind me of WWII movies.
Sukkur is a very old city in upper Sindh province and because it is the largest in the region, most of the villagers who fled the waters headed here. My aunt closes the door to my room, saying that the flies will come in if I’m not careful. Indeed, as I discover while going around to several settlements the next day, flies are everywhere. In my state, only Karachi city has received attention over the years, the other cities have been left, like orphans to slowly sink into a decades-drawn out decline. There are no garbage collectors at work, raw sewage, the colour of disease, slops its way down pencil-sized open drains outside houses.
It is this criminal neglect of the poorer, rural parts of the province that has meant these cities and their government machinery have been unable to cope with the disaster. I understand if for a city like Karachi with 20 million people, you cannot completely manage civic services. But for Sukkur, a smaller place, what the hell have they been doing all this time? I find out a distant relative, Arib Mahar, was the mayor of Shikarpur, a city next door. When I visit it with a local landlord, I am stunned at the state of the God-forsaken place. There isn’t a single road, everything is ramshackle, storefronts are peeling off, the entire city is slowly crumbling. Everything is brown. No other colour exists in this part of the world.
There are about three ways the displaced people manage now. Some of them have headed to the homes of relatives in the city. These people are not being registered for aid. Others have taken up in relief camps where government officials and NGOs are active and hence able to map and assess needs slightly better. Then there are the people who have set up along the roadsides. In a way, they are the worst off.
Across Pakistan you will encounter the charpoy, a wooden frame with legs that becomes a bed when you string a thatch of rope across. In the villages they don’t have beds like you will find at Sears. Today the villagers living on Sukkur’s roads have propped them up with one stick to form a shelter of sorts. If you prop two charpoys against each other, they form a rudimentary tent, that you can cover with blankets and sleep under. When I took a boat to village Rahimabad, we saw one man salvaging his belongings in a floating hamlet. He had converted his charpoy into a raft.
In all of the visits it becomes eminently clear that the water, in some places almost 6 feet deep, doesn’t have anywhere to go but up – as in evaporate. This means that the farming communities won’t be able to do anything till next March. Landlords are discussing how to drain the water back into the river but no one has the money to pay for those many pumps. The good news is that when you look at some of the houses in the floating fields, a watermark confirms that the water is going down.
This means that till March these families need to either be given a way to earn a living or be given a steady supply of rations and healthcare. The USAID’s Miriam Lutz told me earlier on that they have cash-for-work projects that can help people. It is clear to me that somehow donors will have to prop these people up until they can get at least one crop in the ground.
It is also really important to get these people out of the camps and off the roads and back into their villages. One landlord had a speed boat brought in from Karachi so that it could slowly and painfully ferry the people back to the main village. It just doesn’t make sense for them to stay in camps because there aren’t enough toilets and that is spreading disease. What makes more sense is to get them back to their villages and create a network of aid to them. The burden of disease can be avoided like that. Any boat donations are welcome.
Irrigation engineers say that they will have to wait for the water to go down to a certain level before they can rebuild the levees. This is going to take time and money. The barrages will also need an overhaul and I’m really hoping that the government will have the brains to make up for years of neglect. In the Sukkur barrage, for example, several of its gates were jammed shut by a buildup of silt. For years no one cleaned them and as a result there was, I believe, an uneven distribution of pressure of the open gates. The British left us with one of the biggest and most extensive and best irrigation networks in the world and we never bothered to look after it.
This is also a good time for the Pakistani government to register children and families. Across the board, wherever I went I realized that Foucault was right when he said that the management of a population was crucial for government and that can only happen if you know how many people there are and where they are located. In Pakistan, our equivalent of social security cards are the national identity cards (NICs) that is the responsibility of Nadra (National Database Registration Authority). I was shocked to find out that no new maps of Shikarpur or Sukkur city are readily available much less the surrounding villages and their road networks.
In Khanpur, a town whose outskirts sank, I meet Faisal Edhi, the son of Pakistan’s most famous charity organisers Abdul Sattar Edhi. Faisal was at Khanpur’s government high school No. 2 where Watan Foundation was at work. However, he found that the town officials had done a miserable job of registering families. Sometimes there were 1,200 people, sometimes 1,400. The numbers yo-yoed throughout the day. Fed up with the uncertainty, the Edhi staff put together a form and started registering people themselves so that they would be able to distribute aid properly.
Vaccines are needed, mosquito repellent, mosquito nets, cooking utensils, clothes, shoes and the usual medicines for diarrhea. The Aga Khan University Hospital, which is one of Pakistan’s best run, has dispatched doctors such as Dr Zulfiqar Bhutta to these areas. They should be contacted for need assessments as well as the USAID, UN, WHO, Unicef, Hope International, Edhi Foundation, ICRC. Vets are also needed. Desperately. The animals are dropping like flies and they are one crucial element of the economy for these people.
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