THE rains came late this year but late is better than never. So say the overwhelming majority of ‘experts’, along with the protesting urban public which has finally been provided respite from a prolonged heat wave and seemingly interminable loadshedding.
But the rains have not been welcomed in nearly the same measure by many ordinary — and mostly rural-dwelling — Pakistanis whose opinions, it seems, count for little in the overall scheme of things.
The media’s virtual lack of coverage of the devastating floods that have paralysed life in districts such as Jacobabad, Naseerabad, Jaffarabad and Dera Ghazi Khan is unremarkable.
Despite widespread optimism in the wake of the private television ‘revolution’, and indeed the media’s own highly inflated sense of commitment to the public good, it is now clearer than ever before that what sells takes precedence over all else.
Even while the rains and raging hill torrents were inundating villages and sweeping away standing crops and livestock, the media was temporarily compelled to pay attention to the plight of a disempowered industrial working class consumed by the fire of capitalist avarice.
Predictably the focus has already shifted back to what sells. Neither the charred bodies of factory workers nor those found floating in floodwater can retain the media’s attention for too long.
To be sure, even when the public gaze was squarely focused on the floods of two summers ago, deeper structural issues were almost completely swept under the carpet. In countries such as ours, human suffering is all too common but — beyond sloganeering — serious interrogation of why such suffering continues to take place is conspicuous by its absence.
In 2010, while an abundance of rainwater lashed affected regions, the faulty design of World Bank-funded mega water projects explained much of the devastation in districts like Muzaffargarh and Badin.
The major flaws in the Taunsa Barrage Emergency Rehabilitation and Modernisation Project (TBERMP) and Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) had been flagged on numerous occasions by local communities and informed observers, but even after the floods there was limited acknowledgment of the facts and accordingly no reappraisal of existing water policies.
This summer there has been much talk of the devastation caused by the rowed-kohi or hill torrents descending off the Kirthar and Koh-i-Suleiman ranges. But the fact is that there has been no rain for almost two weeks and yet the water level in small towns such as Usta Mohammad continues to rise. Why would this be the case?
And why, beyond very limited press conferences detailing the number of dead and injured, do responsible agencies such as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) provide no explanation for the persistence of the crisis so long after the rains have subsided?
It would not be a conspiracy theory to suggest that the powers-that-be are quite happy with the absence of serious investigation into the floods and their causes, by journalists or anyone else.
Indeed, even an observer with a rudimentary understanding of the political economy of water in the affected regions would conclude that the devastation caused ostensibly by nature — in the form of hill torrents — was in fact at least partially a function of the methodical neglect of historically robust drainage systems.
In short, this bout of flooding, and particularly the fact that water levels just do not appear to be declining as they should be, is very much a case of man-made disaster.
Ancient river systems such as the Indus feature, among many other wonders, natural drains that have survived the test of time.
Until the late modern era, that is. The construction of ‘development’ projects in and around the banks of the Indus River in the post-colonial era has steadily undermined natural drainage systems to the point that seasonal floods that never constituted a ‘disaster’ in centuries past have become exactly that. For all of the engineering know-how that the Pakistani state boasts, it is scandalous that none of the many experts who have bestowed their good graces upon the peoples of the regions that are currently submerged under water would have thought about the consequences of the ‘development’ initiatives they were designing. When planning failures become the norm rather than the exception, the rest of us laypeople ought to sit up and take notice.
I am not suggesting that nature’s wrath is not a big part of the explanation for this summer’s floods, or those that have wreaked havoc in years past. But it is only reasonable to expect that any individual or institution that claims to serve the public interest inform those of us who simply consume most of what we read and hear about.
In other words, it is irresponsible to depict floods as ‘natural’ disasters when there is clearly more to the story than nature. Here I cannot help but question NGOs as much as the state and media. NGOs claim to engage with their ‘intended beneficiaries’ on a long-term basis but they are presently absent without leave in the worst-affected areas.
All this having been said, it is worth bearing in mind that public discourse in Pakistan encourages little in the way of measured interpretation of issues such as seasonal flooding. In this case an extremely grim situation has been misrepresented at best and ignored at worst.
On the other hand, two summers ago the situation was blown almost completely out of proportion insofar as predictions of famine and long-term economic collapse were a dime a dozen.
The Indus Valley and the communities that populate it have been subject to the changing tides of natural water courses for thousands of years. They have survived bigger disasters and they will survive the present floods, just as they survived those of two summers ago.
This does not mean, however, that the callousness of bureaucrats, public opinion-makers and the so-called development sector should be ignored. In particular, it is imperative that we recognise that floods and other such shocks to the eco-system were, in the past, a product purely of natural causes, whereas in this day and age there is virtually no ‘disaster’ that is not at least in part man-made.
Which men (or women in the few cases that they are involved) caused the disaster to happen and how to prevent them from causing another one is something we must concern ourselves with, regardless of whether such a story sells.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.