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August 15, 2010

Pakistan, down and out, once again

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/pakistan_down_and_out_once_again_20100815/

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The flooding in Pakistan is the worst possible thing to have happened at this point in time. There has been so much destruction from the top of the country down to the bottom that we’ve been set back a few hundred years. And as usual we’ve been caught with our pants down. The governor of my state (or province as we call them) admitted on Saturday that the authorities had misinterpreted the actual amount of water heading down south. Great. Just great.

I cannot express how depressing this is for everyone. As it was, we were a country at our knees, and now this. Billions of rupees will be needed to rebuild the roads, highways, schools, homes and other infrastructure that has been destroyed or damaged by the water. The North-West Frontier Province (renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) estimates two trillion rupees in damages. Down south, in Sindh, 3.7 million people are homeless, and this is just an official estimate.

On Friday, the World Bank estimated that there has been $1 billion in crop damage. The UN estimates that flooding has destroyed 1.4 million acres of crops in Punjab province, Pakistan’s breadbasket. Cholera outbreaks are feared. The government relief camps are deserted in many places because people just don’t want to eat the rotten food they’re providing. Six million people need immediate food and water. Where do we go from here?

Once again with the begging bowl? Well, guess what. A lot of people don’t want to necessarily give us money because of such a poor track record of spending aid. The Daily Telegraph just published a damning report that 300 million pounds of help meant for the 2005 Pakistani earthquake survivors never made it to them. Still, the US has been at the forefront of donors. In an editorial in The Friday Times, Najam Sethi pointed out that China and the Organisation of Islamic Conference countries had yet to make their presence felt.
The latest news is that our prime minister is setting up a national commission or panel of well-trusted men to oversee aid spending. Two of the names shortlisted are Edhi, the man who runs one of Pakistan’s biggest and most successful charities, and Justice (retd) Bhagwandas, a former judge with an impeccable reputation. We can only hope that the money reaches the people who need it.

The good news is that young people from universities and schools have been working tirelessly to start small groups to collect donations. They have been heading off to the flood-hit areas in Sindh with truckloads of bottled water, biscuits, dried milk and medicines. Almost everyone one I know, poor and rich, have been giving money or other donations to people and groups they trust. We also know, based on what happened in 2005, that banned militant outfits and their charity wings are also active. These groups are incredibly organized (which the government is not) and they fill the gap the state leaves open.

I spoke to some people in the flood-hit areas, men who have been growers and tribal decision makers for decades. They are fearing an outbreak of violence when food supplies dwindle. We lost one rice crop in the monsoon rains and initial flooding and now we won’t be able to sow the next crop, which is wheat, in November. The water won’t dry by then. That said, however, other experts pointed out that once the water recedes the next seasons should be good as alluvial soil will have spread over the land, making it fertile.

As perhaps happens with natural disasters, it seems as if the worst and best of humanity surfaces. On one hand, armed men are looting the abandoned houses and farms of flood survivors who left for safer ground. Grownups are drinking the milk meant for children. Influential landlords are breaking through canals to divert water away from their lands, thereby flooding entire towns. However, on the other hand, young men and women are working day and night, while fasting, to organize and distribute food and water and cooked meals to people. Doctors have headed out from the cities into the water-hit heartlands to treat children. There was a report that a 12-year-old boy was going out on his little boat to keep rescuing people stranded in villages. The scouts, army and navy have been constantly at work.

The next year is going to be a very difficult one. I only hope that somehow at my newspaper we can keep doing the kind of stories that prevent donor fatigue and reader fatigue. I keep going over hurricane Katrina coverage to try and learn and refresh our own approach. I’m hoping we can keep going.

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