freelance journalist currently based in Karachi, Pakistan. Her work has appeared in The National, Columbia Journalism Review, Global Post, and Current TV.
In Pakistan, torrential rains a month ago that triggered unprecedented floods have moved steadily from north to south, engulfing a fifth of the country. Seventeen million people have been affected, and some five million have lost their homes. Meanwhile, a movement to cancel Pakistan’s external debt is now underway as campaigners plan a protest in front of Pakistan’s parliament house today to call on international institutions like the IMF to cancel the country’s debt. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: In Pakistan, the massive flooding continues. Torrential rains a month ago triggered unprecedented floods that have moved steadily from north to south engulfing a fifth of the country. Seventeen million people have been affected, and some five million have lost their homes. According to the United Nations, more than eight million children have made vulnerable because of the floods. The waters also washed away huge swaths of farmland on which the country’s struggling economy depends.
The UN has appealed for $460 million in emergency funds to help deal with the immediate humanitarian crisis. So far, it’s only been able to raise around two-thirds of that money.
Meanwhile, a movement to cancel Pakistan’s external debt is now underway. Campaigners are planning a protest in front of Pakistan’s parliament house today to call on international institutions, such as the IMF, to cancel the country’s debt to help those affected by the flood.
We go now to Pakistan to speak with Madiha Tahir, a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She is just back from visiting the flood-affected area of Sukkur in Sindh province. We’re also joined on the telephone by Qalandar Memon, editor of the online journal Naked Punch and a member of the Labor Party of Pakistan.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
MADIHA TAHIR: Thank you. Hi.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Madiha, I’d like to start with you. Could you tell us about the situation that you’ve seen in the flood-ravaged areas?
MADIHA TAHIR: Sure, sure. I mean, I was — yeah, as you said, I was in Sukkur, and there, you know, the water level is still very, very deep. I mean, the sort of scale of the disaster is staggering. The water is still anywhere from fifteen to thirty feet deep. You know, what used to the farm houses now look like lakefront property. There are villages that are completely surrounded by floodwaters and look like little islands, and the only way to get to them is by boat. I went to these villages, and people there told me that, you know, the government had only sort of air-dropped food once or twice, and that’s it. And since then, they’ve been living on whatever leftover goods that they have. You know, then — and people are saying that if the water is not gone by around September, the land may not be dry enough to sow wheat in November, which is the regular farming cycle.
And then, you know, there are displaced people. There are the IDP camps, which are run by local and international NGOs, the Pakistani army, the government. And then there are people who’ve set up by roadways, under bridges or, you know, just completely — you know, with whatever livestock that they could save. I spoke to a woman who had walked for three days with her seven kids and was set up under a bridge. Another man I met, you know, had a child who looked about two months old, but he insisted that the child was two years old. But the kid was so famished and ill that he completely, you know, did not look his age. These are people who are not able to go into camps, either because they don’t have their ID cards, because they don’t want to leave their livestock behind, which is required at some of these camps, or because, you know, there were allegations in some of these — by some of these people that they were not allowing non-Muslims at some of the camps.
You know, so it’s — there’s disease spreading, you know, by — both in the IDP camps. I met a woman who had lost two kids. She said gastroenteritis, but we don’t really know, because she was never able to show them to a doctor. And, you know, then I met another man who had lost his daughter to what he also said was gastroenteritis, but again, we don’t really know. So the death toll from these floods is going to be a lot higher than the sort of initial figure that everybody has kind of latched onto. It’s not even clear if anybody is, you know, collecting those figures.
And then there are questions about — right now we’re kind of in the relief phase. And then there are questions about, you know, how the rehabilitation efforts will happen and whether it even makes sense for these people to go back to the lands that they came from and to get reintegrated into essentially what were, in this area, you know, feudal relationships, feudal land relationships. And there are questions about what the Pakistani government is or is not doing. So it’s a very complicated situation on the ground.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Madiha, on that last issue of what the Pakistani government is or isn’t doing, is it your sense that the emergency response is largely coming from the military or from government civilian organizations or emergency response groups?
MADIHA TAHIR: Well, this is a complicated question. I mean, certainly the government, on a national level, has been quite corrupt. They’ve been caught, you know, setting up fake medical and relief camps for photo ops. But on the other hand, you know, the budget for the army does come from the national government. You know, the army is supposed to be the kind of boots on the ground of the government. In this case, they seem to be sort of functioning autonomously. What the government has been doing is — you know, people are saying, "Well, the army is helping us, and the NGOs are helping us," but actually the government is working through a lot of NGOs. The NGOs are either being partially funded by or receiving goods from the government, that they are then distributing to people. So they’re public-private partnerships, so it’s not really that cut and dry, as it sometimes appears to be. I mean, having said that, there’s obviously a lot of things that the government is not doing. It’s not coordinating its various, you know, arms that it could coordinate very well.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’d like to bring in Qalandar Memon also on the discussion. Could you talk about this whole issue of the rising move to call for the cancellation of Pakistan’s debt? How big is it right now, and what are the prospects for that?
QALANDAR MEMON: Hello.
Yeah, the move began almost immediately after the floods. I mean, there’s been activists campaigning on this issue for a while. And given the fact that our government is again talking to IMF, and it was reported yesterday that tax increases and taxes on imports are possible, including on food items, which would put inflation — which is likely to be at 20 percent as a result of these floods — an increase of further 20 percent, that is — even further. So, activists and many members of political social organizations have been thinking about this issue. And there was an all-party conference two days ago in Lahore, and thirty organizations attended. And there, a united platform was formed, and today we have our first rally in Islamabad. And we have three other rallies coming up in Karachi, in Lahore and again back to Islamabad over the next month. In terms of how big the movement is, it’s getting almost big by itself. There is a petition I saw online which has about 30,000 members — people have signed it.
And the argument we’re making is that most of the debt that Pakistan incurs — and there’s a $55 billion external debt that we have at the moment — has been incurred by dictators, so Ayub, Zia and Musharraf. For example, when Musharraf took over, the debt, Pakistan’s external debt, was $35 billion. And by the time he left, it was $49 billion. And we do not feel that the Pakistani people should be paying this. And this is going to be paid by future generations. And it hasn’t been used for development. So these are some of our arguments. And the servicing on this is $3.4 billion per year, and that is a huge amount. And if there’s cancellation, of course, the economy can recover, and we can deal with the floods appropriately.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Madiha Tahir, on the issue of the continuing US drone strikes in the area of Pakistan, as it continues to fight the spillover effects from the Afghanistan war, could you — are those continuing? And were you able to, in your travels through the flood-ravaged area, get any sense of the extent of how those attacks are continuing?
MADIHA TAHIR: They are certainly continuing. I mean, even as the US was promising aid, you know, initially $150 million or so, at the same time — $150 million of aid for the flood — as a flood relief package — at the same time, there was — excuse me — at the same time, there were still drone strikes continuing. On August 14th, which is Pakistan’s independence day, and when we were already in the middle of this crisis, the flood crisis, there were drone strikes in the northern parts of Pakistan.
So it’s a very schizophrenic policy, partially because if the concern of the United States is indeed terrorism and stopping terrorism, and there’s all this discussion about, you know, disaffection and poverty as being causes of terrorism, certainly it would make more sense to, you know, put the money that is now going toward drone strikes towards flood relief. I mean, you now have 20 million people or so that have been affected by this crisis. This is, you know, a quarter of Pakistan is now underwater. So it’s a very schizophrenic policy. You know, the amount of money that the US gives the Pakistan army for its security efforts is, you know, about $150 million a month, which is very — which is pretty much close to what they have promised as a sum total package at the moment for flood relief. So it’s very — it’s a strange policy, and there’s a lot of anger about it, as well. I mean, I saw USAID camps, tents that had been given, and these were actually simply just kind of plastic sheets that people had taken and had bought their own sticks to prop up as tents, and they were falling in, I mean, some of the worst, shabbiest tents around.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to also ask Qalandar Memon about this. It’s been reported in the past few days about the diversion of waters from the floods to save a US military base that was in the path of the floodwaters. Could you talk about that?
QALANDAR MEMON: Yes. I just want to continue what Madiha was saying, as well. I think the war is continuing on both sides. It’s not just the US, but also the Pakistani military, and they really are partners. And a good example of this would be, like, what you just ask me about. The air base is called Shahbaz Air Base, and this is in Jacobabad district. And the water could have been diverted. The water was increasing in pressure and volume, and it could have been diverted in two directions. One was toward the city where — Jacobabad city, where 900,000 people would have been affected. On the other side, it could have been diverted, and far less people, less than 100,000, would have been affected, but an air base would certainly have been sacrificed. And the military, in the dead of night, breached the canal so that the water goes towards the 900,000 people, as opposed to the air base. And, you know, it’s said that the air base is in the control of US military and that this is where the drones are flown from. And the secretary of — health secretary, in fact, in the Senate committee said that relief efforts cannot take place in Jacobabad, because the US government would not allow flights from Shahbaz Air Base to take off for relief work. And yesterday, there was an air strike by the Pakistan military — pardon me — in the northern area, which killed around forty people. Now, the headlines always say "militants," but we do not know how many were militants and how many were innocent. So — and, of course, there was also three bomb blasts in Lahore. So it seems that war continues while 17 million people are homeless and suffering.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We will continue to cover this story. Qalandar Memon is editor of the online journal Naked Punch and a member of the Labor Party of Pakistan. And Madiha Tahir is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.