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PAKISTAN: chronicles of an (expected) biblical catastrophe
  • floods in Pakistan
    floods in Pakistan
A biblical catastrophe. A disaster of epochal proportions. According to available data, about thirty percent of Pakistan is virtually under water. More than one thousand four hundred people have died, thirty three million people have been left homeless and without any means of livelihood. Crops have been destroyed, particularly those of wheat, rice, and cotton: which will incidentally have global consequences since Pakistan produces 2.5 percent of the world's wheat, 9 percent of rice, and 5 percent of cotton production. Food is scarce, so much so that Islamabad is even thinking of resuming trade with India, halted after the Indian bombing of the Balakot terrorist training camp in 2019, to import tomatoes, onions, and potatoes. Hardly any medicine can be found. The cloth needed to make tents for the refugee camps, which much of the local population is having built and sent to the most devastated areas, must be imported from China. Displaced people are at risk of contracting infections because they drink dirty water and the hygienic conditions in the camps are poor or, even, nonexistent. A biblical catastrophe, as we said. A disaster of epochal proportions. But, above all, a disaster foretold. Because Pakistan, geographically, is a land of earthquakes and floods, so much so that there is even a dedicated Federal Flood Commission. In the commission's records, the first recorded catastrophic event was in 1950, the last in 2010. In between are the 'normal' floods that hit the country every year. In 2010, when 1,700 people died and 20 million were left homeless, the United States, which was stationed in Afghanistan, actively intervened in relief operations and allocated more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid, continuing for two years to fund reconstruction. Not only that, under pressure from Washington, all international humanitarian agencies took action to bring in aid, allocate emergency funds and cancel some of the country's public debt. Twelve years later, history repeats itself. With the exact same script, unfortunately. And in the meantime, nothing has changed. Having spent the money for reconstruction, which has more than likely migrated into the pockets of the usual knowns or disappeared into the rivulets and meanders of public administration, everything has returned to 'normalcy'. Yet, the current flood, like the 2010 flood, is neither an unpredictable nor an immediate phenomenon. Rain began to fall in August, flooding towns and villages and leaving hundreds dead on the streets, in the Balochistan region. A breakaway region, which according to its inhabitants (and also according to international law) has been illegally occupied by Pakistan. Balochistan is home to almost all of the country's nuclear bases, major gas and mineral reserves, and the headquarters of China's Belt and Road Initiative. Balochistan is where Pakistan keeps its top terrorists (does anyone remember the Quetta Shura of Taliban memory? Quetta is the capital of Balochistan) and where its inhabitants are victims of a real genocide repeatedly denounced by international organizations. For these and other reasons, the region is sealed off. No humanitarian organization (or any journalist) is allowed to cross the region's borders, and the only organizations allowed to provide relief are the army and 'humanitarian' organizations, such as Jamaat-u-Dawa, linked to terrorist organizations. Put another way, Islamabad cared and cared little, once it was satisfied that the military installations were safe, about the fate of the region's inhabitants. Just as it cares little, in general, about the fate of its citizens. The same had happened in 2010: and, as in 2010, in less than a month the water had made its way to Sindh and neighboring regions. And while meteorologists and climatologists were warning of danger, the National Disaster Management Authority was passing diagrams and paperwork from room to room without taking any initiative, and politicians were engaged in the favorite game of Pakistani politics, denigrating and threatening each other. One after another, twelve dams were damaged or literally crumbled since they had been built with shoddy materials. Rivers, along which houses, villages and in some cases entire city neighborhoods were illegally built, broke their banks. And houses, also built with materials that to call shoddy is an understatement, disintegrated. The same fate befell highways, built with shoddy materials and in risky terrain. The National Disaster Management Authority, in the face of disaster, was floundering: for the past decade, and after the 2010 disaster, did not have not only an emergency plan or trivial dinghies to evacuate the population, but not even a life preserver with a ducky. Or an umbrella. And yet, blaming the builders and those who decide on urban plans is not possible. For the simple reason that, in Pakistan, more than half of the construction companies, bricks and mortar and related, are in some way tied to the military. The military, which effectively rules the country, expropriates land (or appropriates public land) and builds anything with disregard for both the danger of earthquakes and floods and any glimmer of legality. Just as it is not possible to blame the politicians, who in their endless paternalistic-latifundist magnanimity (in Pakistan the latifundium has never been abolished) provide out of their (billionaire) pocket to send relief to the victims who are on their lands or in their constituency. On the other hand, half the country works like this: there are no entitlements, only good daddy-owners who grant favors to the needy and deserving. And who dine at their own club with the general on duty. The money, however, unlike in 2010, is not enough this time. The alarm is raised, once again. The United Nations, Unicef and WHO take action, start sending field teams and humanitarian aid. Local NGOs raise funds and basic necessities. But, once again, there is a but. Not only is Balochistan sealed to all outside influence, but only a few are allowed to directly provide relief in the rest of the country: international organizations are not allowed to operate directly on the ground since it became known that it was a doctor working for Save the Children who revealed Osama bin Laden's address. So: no direct help, everything has to go through the hands of local politicians and military or some Pakistani organizations linked to the above gentlemen. But even this is not enough. The situation is much, much worse than in 2010, and in the meantime the geopolitical scenario has changed. The Americans are gone from Afghanistan, and relations with Islamabad are rather up and down. Politicians and activists try to take advantage of every media platform to ask the West for money, but the West, in other busy affairs does not answer the call with its usual enthusiasm. So someone, in this case Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman, has a stroke of genius: it is the West's fault that Pakistan has floods. The floods are caused by climate change, to which Pakistan contributes only 1 percent of global emissions. The West must not only send aid and give away grants, but compensate Islamabad for the natural disaster. Open applause. Rehman dished out the egg of Columbus, sweeping away in one gesture the fact that Pakistan runs mainly on coal, that there are open-pit mines, that there are no earthquake or emergency plans for natural disasters. That people build everywhere and with shoddy materials, that crops burned in the fall make the air toxic, that the country floods from its founding to even before and other such amenities. Pakistani-born analyst Faran Jeffery, who heads the British think tank Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism, comments, "The most interesting thing about Pakistanis blaming everyone for the bad situation the country is in-a situation that, mind you, is largely the fault of the Pakistanis themselves-is that very few dare to name China as the major culprit for the pollution. For them, as per the script, it's always okay to blame the good old West." Yep, China. The elephant in the room, so cumbersome that it is never mentioned. China that considers Cpec, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship of its 'global connectivity project'. The China that has cheerfully polluted more than half of Pakistan (and contributes more to global emissions in Asia than anyone else), the China largely responsible for so-called development projects built at sky-high prices, with Chinese labor and shoddy materials. That same China that turned the city of Gwadar, modeled after Xinjiang, into an open-air prison, forever polluting land and sea. Which acquired the rights to the twin islands of Bhundar and Dingi, off the coast of Sindh, to make them a novel Hong Kong; mangrove islands that are a veritable bulwark against cyclones and tsunamis. The same China maneuvering from behind the scenes, prompting Sherry Rehman to accuse the West and only the West, and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to echo her. On the other hand, last year lawyer Emma Reilly, who worked for the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, formally denounced, complete with evidence, the established practice of passing to the local Chinese embassy the names of dissidents who would come to testify at the commission. But China, this time, as former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and director for Central and South Asia at the Hudson Institute Husain Haqqani argues, "Missed the train" to once again show eternal friendship for Pakistan and to be a viable alternative to the West and the Americans. Apparently, Xi Jinping sent his deepest condolences, a $57 million aid package, and that's it. No help on the ground, no sending of specialized teams. The losers, as always, are the people. Victims of natural disasters over which they have no control, victims of enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings and whatever else if they even try to protest. A victim of real brainwashing by the press and social media, heavily controlled by the military. Providing relief, in the midst of this tragedy, are not institutions, but individuals, who, each according to his or her ability, are careful not to donate paper money but organize packages of basic necessities. Hoping that they will reach the recipients, and that the political-religious polemics currently raging in the country will finally give way, if not to democracy and transparency, to concrete structural interventions.
Francesca Marino