Pakistan’s Devastating Floods Are President Zardari’s Katrina
By Fatima Bhutto
10 August, 2010
Pakistan’s government is facing rising national anger as the devastating floods along the Indus River show little sign of abating. Some 1,600 people have died, and upwards of six million people are directly affected, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations, which has compared the scale of the crisis to the 2005 earthquake. As landslides and continuing rain complicated relief efforts, entire villages have been washed away and many towns submerged. Several areas of the country have been cut off, including the Swat Valley in the northwest and parts of Pakistan’s breadbasket of Punjab and Sindh some 600 miles downstream the Indus River. With 1.5 million acres of croplands ravaged, the prices of basic foods have also skyrocketed. [includes rush transcript]
Fatima Bhutto, niece of the late Benazir Bhutto and a vocal critic of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Her latest article is Zardari’s Katrina. Her memoir Songs of Blood and Sword will be published in the United States this fall.
AMY GOODMAN: Pakistan’s government is facing rising national anger as the devastating floods along the Indus River show little sign of abating. Some 1,600 people have died, upwards of six million people directly affected, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations, which has compared the scale of the crisis to the 2005 earthquake. As landslides and continuing rain complicated relief efforts, entire villages have been washed away and many towns submerged. Several areas of the country have been cut off, including the Swat Valley in the northwest and parts of Pakistan’s breadbasket of Punjab and Sindh some 600 miles downstream the Indus River. With one-and-a-half million acres of croplands ravaged, the prices of basic foods have skyrocketed.
This is Mohamad Amin, a resident of Mingora in the Swat Valley.
MOHAMAD AMIN: [translated] The people of Swat have been the worst-affected by the floods. Hundreds of people have been swept away by the floods. Thousands of houses have collapsed, and hundreds of thousands have been affected. The inaction of the government in this crisis is regrettable.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, returned home today after a prolonged European tour that sparked fury at home over his absence at a time of national disaster. The government insists his overseas trip was crucial, but images of the president at his chateau in France while his country is battling the worst floods in nearly a century have deepened his unpopularity and strengthened the role of the army. Zardari even faced protests in Britain, with a Pakistani demonstrator in Birmingham hurling a shoe towards him Saturday.
Meanwhile in London, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the twenty-one-year-old son of Asif Ali Zardari and the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, launched an appeal for Pakistan’s floods and defended his father’s absence.
BILAWAL BHUTTO ZARDARI: As we all know, Pakistan is facing the worst floods in living memory. The floodwaters have devastated the lives of a people who have already suffered the most at the hands of terrorists. I ask everyone to do what you can to help the people of Pakistan. This is not a time to play politics. We need to do whatever is necessary to help our brothers and sisters in Pakistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the situation in Pakistan, we’re joined now from Karachi by writer and poet Fatima Bhutto. She is the niece of Benazir Bhutto and a vocal critic of the current Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari. Her latest article in foreignpolicy.com calls the current crisis "Zardari’s Katrina." Her memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, will be published in the United States this fall.
Fatima Bhutto, welcome to Democracy Now! First, describe the situation in your country, the extent of the floods and the response of the Pakistani people.
FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, it’s as you said, Amy. We’re now hearing that 14 million people are being affected by these floods. This season’s rice crop in the Sindh province, in the food belt of this country, has been destroyed. The River Indus is bursting at its banks. We know that more than two million people are in desperate need of food aid. Many hundreds of thousands more have been displaced and lost their homes. And we are hearing now that Mohenjo-daro, which is the birthplace of the Indus civilization, the world’s first planned city that has existed since 2400 BC, is under threat of being destroyed. The destruction in terms of the country’s infrastructure has been enormous. Electricity grids have been shot in the Punjab and Sindh province. The Swat Valley, as you said, is completely closed off. And we are only in the middle of monsoon season. You know, it is raining in Karachi today, as we speak now.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about where the president is. We should say that Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated prime minister, was your aunt, so he is your uncle. President Zardari, where is he?
FATIMA BHUTTO: Yes, by marriage, I should point out. But, you know, Zardari embarked on a European-wide tour. He stopped in Dubai, where he and his children have lived for many years. As you said, he visited his chateau in France and took photo opportunities with President Sarkozy and with David Cameron.
That Zardari would leave the country at a time when it faces its worst national disaster ever is not surprising. This is also the month that has seen Pakistan’s worst aviation disaster in our history. This is the month where human right groups have estimated that some 300 people, some 300 politicians and political activists, have been murdered in targeted killings in the city of Karachi alone. And Karachi was the place—the scene of carnage just recently, where a member of Parliament was killed, and anywhere between thirty-five to seventy-five people were killed in retributive acts of murder. President Zardari has a history of leaving the country when the going gets tough. A local pundit anecdotally once estimated that Richard Holbrooke has spent more time in Pakistan than the president.
And he has defended his decision, robustly, to leave the country. He has claimed that he has no responsibility at the moment to the people, that the Senate and the Parliament can take care of the disaster. But, however, this is a man who is not only one of the most venal figures in the country, but this is a man who is facing corruption cases in the billions of dollars before he ascended to the office of the presidency.
AMY GOODMAN: How does he justify being outside of the country at this time of crisis, the worst flooding in a century?
FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, he said to the BBC that, as an extraordinarily munificent Democrat, he has no responsibility, because he has empowered the Senate and the Parliament to deal with the crisis. But, of course, that’s an incredibly hollow justification. The Pakistani—the entire upper echelon of the Pakistani state has traveled to Europe and to Dubai at the expense of the Pakistani people. Zardari has been staying at five-star hotels everywhere he goes. He has been ferried around in private limousines. The security for him and his entourage is privately hired. So there is absolutely no justification. There’s no justification for spending that money that Pakistan so desperately needs. And, of course, it’s ridiculous then to say that the president had to go abroad to lobby for funds for the flood victims, when in fact the flood victims could have benefited from the money that the Pakistani Treasury has just spent on this enormously pointless visit.
AMY GOODMAN: You say, Fatima Bhutto, if rumors in the Pakistani press are correct, the President Zardari’s European tour is more cynical than it seems; it’s a trip to kick off his son’s political career.
FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, this was what was being rumored not just in the Pakistani press, but also in the British press in The Daily Telegraph and The Times of London. And what we know is that this is a government that finds itself in power on the basis of a name. It finds itself in power on the basis of a name, in fact, that is not even theirs. You know, this is a false dynasty, though all dynasties are dangerous and false, certainly. But Asif Zardari remains in power on the blood of his wife. And we know, certainly, that, you know, he has taken his children abroad to meet with heads of states before, that they are part of his entourage, that his family members—his sister, namely—are part of, you know, the hundred-deep entourage that travels with the president. There is absolutely no justification, however, for a trip of this expense and of this amount of time, especially as Pakistan is submerged.
AMY GOODMAN: As experts grapple with the causes for the scale of the current devastation, some point to the poor construction of small dams or barrages along the surging Indus River. Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat spoke to Mushtaq Gaadi, a professor at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University and a longtime water rights activist. He emphasized the breaches in one particular barrage on the Indus in the province of Punjab. It’s called Taunsa Barrage and was renovated under a World Bank-funded project that was completed just six months ago.
MUSHTAQ GAADI: There was no doubt that the size of the flood was very massive. But the destruction that was brought, it was brought due to the breaches in the dykes and the breaches in embankments. And certainly, there are many man-made causes involved in what’s been the situation. The main cause of the flood, worsening of the flood, was Taunsa Barrage. It was in the downstream of Taunsa Barrage. And the reason was that the Taunsa Barrage is the most tilted-up river, and its capacity, storage capacity, has been reduced. So it is not possible to hold up the water and then to—and embankments are in very bad shape.
When the World Bank started its rehabilitation project of Taunsa Barrage three years ago, it was meant to basically to rehabilitate and repair the whole barrage. And $140 million were allocated. We asked them to pay attention to ecological issues, and especially the issue of this tilt, the position, sedimentation of the barrage, and how the whole ecology of the barrage is going to change, because its channel has been raised up, and now all the low-lying areas are in—more in the danger of floods. So, all that have been ignored. So, after the rehabilitation project, just after six months, the barrage failed to hold up the water, and it was breached. So it was—in fact, it was the failure of Taunsa Barrage that caused such large destruction. It was a failure of the one structure of Taunsa Barrage. That was embankment. So, it is not only the—these are not only natural floods, but also the structures that were created were injurious and badly looked after by irrigation department, that have caused such destruction and worsened the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Mushtaq Gaadi from Quaid-e-Azam University in Pakistan, talking about the breaches to one of the small dams, or barrages, on the Indus River.
One of the many areas badly affected by the floods is Balochistan. On Sunday, Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat reached Qalandar Memon with the Labor Party of Pakistan about relief eforts in this historically ignored region.
QALANDAR MEMON: Balochistan is historically neglected by the state. It hasn't [inaudible] the education network. Balochis are far more unemployed or underrepresented in all state institutions, in terms military, bureaucracy. And as you probably already know, there is an insurgency going on for separation and for other demands, autonomy. And in light of that, the flooding has not really—the government has done very little to support the people who have been flooded. And the government, in terms of what they did, is that turned up with very minor number of food and—and, you know, over 40,000 people in the first few days were affected, and then it’s increased. And they turned up with something like 5,000 food parcels. And, of course, that’s going to cause more trouble and rioting, because it was just dumped, and they left, leaving people to sort out how to distribute it themselves. I’ve also heard stories of mass corruption among the officials and that people with connections and people who are able to pay the government are able to get relief, and others are suffering.
So, the flooding swept villages. People did not expect it. And they were basically—they had to run for their lives to higher ground, and there they had to sleep in the open, without shelter, clean drinking water, and their food supplies, of course, finished, because they rely on stock, livestock, and that’s been swept away, in most cases. So they are without food, without clean drinking water, and they have very little shelter. Now, as time has gone by, more and more people are moving, if possible, because the roads are blocked, and it’s very difficult when people are still scared. But if possible, when they get a chance, they’re trying to move to bigger cities, such as Quetta. But a lot of people, I think—the last I heard, there are at least 50,000 people sleeping in the open still in Balochistan. Everyone here has been complaining the government actually does not have the capacity to respond, because when there isn’t a disaster, they do nothing in terms of capacity building. So, this is the critique that people articulated after the earthquake, and I don’t think that it’s gone much further than that.
AMY GOODMAN: Qalandar Memon from the Labor Party of Pakistan.
We’re still on the line with Fatima Bhutto, the Pakistani poet, the niece of the assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Fatima, I wanted to ask you about the growing strength of the Taliban. And, well, the Washington Post is reporting the US military has sent six helicopters, ninety-one troops, hundreds of thousands of meals from neighboring Afghanistan, to help with relief efforts in Swat. The presence of US troops on the ground in Pakistan has the potential to kick up controversy, given the deep mistrust of American motivation. And it goes on to say, Islamic charities, including ones that are known fronts for banned militant groups, have begun distributing assistance in some areas, as have Western governmental organizations, but for the most part, residents said they’re receiving no aid at all. So talk about what this means for the military and for the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan.
FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, certainly the last statement is correct, and we know this again to be true from the 2005 earthquake. The state is absolutely unwilling or incompetent when it comes to providing even the most basic of services to their people during peacetime, during times of no natural disasters.
Secondly, while there is aid coming from the American military, we also have to remember that American Predator drones fly over Pakistan on what feels like weekly missions—what are weekly missions—in attacks that have killed more than 200 unnamed Pakistanis this year alone. So, with one hand, America cannot expect to give aid and find people, you know, grateful recipients of that aid, and the other, bomb people overhead, people who have not been indicted, people who have been, you know, uncharged with anything.
And certainly, what we know to be true, again, from the 2005 earthquake is the fact that when there is a total absence of the state, a vacuum is created. We know, not just in the northern parts of Pakistan that were badly hit by the 2005 earthquake, but many other parts of the country are without access to justice. They’re without any law-and-order institutions set up. They have no access to hospitals or schools. And that vacuum is very ably filled by militant groups, who come in, who provide madrasah education, which may be a child’s only chance to learn how to read and write. They provide quick and speedy access to what they believe is justice. And indeed, their popularity grows as a result. And we’re seeing that now with the floods. We are still seeing that. We are seeing, in parts of the flood-affected areas, the BBC is reporting, that survivors have physically attacked government officials and members of the ruling party, who have been absolutely inept when it comes to caring for their constituents and to providing any form of aid.
AMY GOODMAN: Is global warming tied to the floods, Fatima?
FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, I would certainly—I would certainly think so. I think there is any number of issues that are tied to these floods. I mean the global warming, the poor construction of these very large ineffectual dams, and the fact that Pakistan, even though we have monsoon season every year—it comes at the same time every year—the state has not strengthened any institutions that could have and should have contained the rain.
AMY GOODMAN: Fatima Bhutto, I want to thank you for being with us, Pakistani poet, niece of the assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Her memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, will be published in the United States this fall.