Social inequality worsens the impact of the floods in Pakistan

The flooding in Pakistan is likely to get worse in coming days, as there are reports that more rains will hit the country and the already ravaged infrastructure will be ill-equipped to deal with the water.  The Indus river is already at a 50-year high (though in part this is because of silt and sediment raising the riverbed) and there are worries that it will only rise higher.  There are already reports of hundreds of thousands of people who have been stranded because of the flooding with no way to access resources other than airlifts.  And as the flooding gets worse, it will be harder to get resources to the people who need them the most.

The flooding and the response to it have revealed openly what has been a quiet secret: that Pakistan is cleft from top-to-bottom in the most perverse arrangement of economic and social power which allows the poor to be treated no better than flotsam and jetsam.  There is open anger everywhere at local and central government officials.  Here’s how Riaz Ahmad put it:

‘Cities like Mianwali and Charsadda have been allowed to drown in order to save dams and hydroelectric stations. The reason is that these have either already been privatised or are earmarked for sell-off.  Military installations have been saved, but entire villages have been submerged because budget cuts have meant the loss of vital riverbank defences.  And forests and jungles have been plundered by millionaire-owned timber businesses.  This has created soil erosion and the destruction of natural defences that can prevent flooding.  Local and national governments have awarded the contracts for this kind of work, knowing the dangers.’

In some instances, government intervention has merely made things worse, as in the villages in Dadu district where government officials warned locals that there would be floods and told them to evacuate, but provided no transportation.  The result was panic.  In other instances, you have the open conflict between private efforts to save farmlands and the state-led efforts to shore up the infrastructure.  What is really being concealed in this conflict is the competition between large-landowners who are connected to the state and those who are not.  The result of fights like this will be the unplanned but totally predictable devastation of poorer villages caught in the middle.

The effects will be felt most acutely by poor farmers who are dependent on the rural economy to survive – and the flooding has decimated this year’s crop.  Here’s how Khalid Bhatti and Rukhsana Manzoor put it:

“If we include the figures of Sindh and Khyber province, the total goes up to more than 2 million acres. This is massive damage. Sugar cane, rice and cotton crops have been badly damaged. Agriculture experts are saying that farm production in Pakistan, Asia’s third-largest grower of wheat and the fourth biggest producer of cotton, may decline by 20 to 30% because of this damage. The losses to agriculture and livestock would have a spill over effect on industry and commercial activities to a great extent. This is because agriculture continues to play a central role in the national economy. Accounting for over 21% of GDP, agriculture remains by far the largest employer, engaging 45% of the country’s labour force.”

And the unevenness of the social consequences will mean that the rich who have the resources to survive the crisis will be able to buy up land on the cheap once it is over while the level of rural poverty will only go up.  Bhatti and Manzoor go on to say:

“The small farmers and peasants will suffer the most from this disaster as feudal lords and big farmers will transfer the burden of disaster onto the shoulders of peasants and poor farmers. Feudal lords and big farmers have shifted their families to safe places in the cities but peasants and small farmers are suffering and facing the miseries of life because they have no means to move out of the affected areas. They have no place to go and are forced to live under the open skies. Poor people have been left with nothing and at the mercy of the state machinery for rescue and relief. They have lost their livelihoods and shelter. Now, the real problem will start for them when authorities start to the pay compensation and reconstruction money. They will be asked to provide ownership documents to get compensation for their destroyed homes and livelihoods which they can not provide because these lands belong to the feudal lords. These peasants have been working and living on those lands for generations but they do not own the lands. The destruction of crops means that they will be left without any food reserves or money for months to come. The government will offer cheap loans and other facilities to the feudal lords and big farmers, but nothing will be offered to poor peasants and small farmers. They will be left at the mercy of private money lenders and feudal lords to be fully exploited. These private money lenders and feudal lords will offer loans to these peasants and small farmers at very high interest rates. These peasants will be forced to work like slaves for feudal lords just for few thousand rupees. This disaster will further impoverish the hundreds of thousands of already extremely poor peasants and farmers.”

And the inequality in Pakistan produces criminal behavior.  For instance, there are worries now that professional “land-grabbers” are posing as flood victims and hoping to capitalize on government assistance to claim land that is not theirs.

Meanwhile the UN made the totally rational and yet completely unreasonable suggestion that people not live in areas prone to flooding, ignoring the fact that these are the few places that landlords will provide for poor peasants who can’t afford to live in the bigger towns or cities.  The World Bank and the IMF are renegotiating the terms of their loans to Pakistan, diverting moneys from development projects towards relief efforts.  But as Pakistan is already paying back loans to the tune of $3 billion a year, it’s likely that the long-term effects of these international loans will be the further indebtedness of Pakistan’s economy.

One of the effects of the crisis has been the thorough humiliation of the civilian government which has been at best inept at worst craven in its response to the flooding.  In fact, Asif Ali Zardari seems hell-bent on pressing the claim that the Taliban will take advantage of the situation in Pakistan as cover for what are clearly embarrassing revelations of his government’s incompetence.

The primary beneficiary has been the Pakistani Army which is almost always seen as the best recourse to the failures of the civilian government.  And Altaf Hussain, the leader of the MQM, has even called for the army to take power in Pakistan.

At the same time, the US continues its operations along the border with Afghanistan and continues to rely on support from the Pakistani army.  And Dan Feldman, Deputy Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, had the following to say about the pattern of American assistance to Pakistan:

We’re also, as we’ve briefed before, providing millions of dollars of in-kind and technical assistance, including the temporary bridges, expanding preexisting programs in flood-affected areas, the halal meals, and a range of other things. We’re looking at ways that we can redirect already existing funds through Kerry-Lugar-Berman and others to meet the needs of flood victims as soon as possible, so programs for livelihood, for clinics, rebuilding schools, infrastructure that we had already planned, which can be redirected to get to flood victims as quickly as possible.
This is also in addition to the high-impact, high-visibility projects that the Secretary announced while in Pakistan just last month which will continue to come out of Kerry-Lugar-Berman funding.
What this implies is that the US will continue to offer aid for “high-visibility, high-impact” efforts (read winning hearts-and-minds) that will result in quick, image-improving exercises.

3 thoughts on “Social inequality worsens the impact of the floods in Pakistan

  1. Economic inequality is increasing in (virtually?) all the capitalist countries. That includes, of course, the U.S.–it is just more evident in the poorer countries. You educate us as to the details of how this is working in Pakistan. The push for profit exacerbates ecological degradation–producing ever worse “natural” disasters (see Hurricane Katrina in the U.S.), which disproportionately impact the poor, farmers, the working class.

    We try to educate working class folks in the U.S. as to the need for solidarity with the working class worldwide–e.g., unity with immigrant workers in the U.S., not trying to expell them. In my opinion, we need a socialist revolution in every capitalist nation.


  3. Pingback: Pakistan Flood Relief Planning Meeting, NYC « LeftyProf

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