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Massive Flooding, Stewing Resentment In Pakistan

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Massive Flooding, Stewing Resentment In Pakistan

Asia

Massive Flooding, Stewing Resentment In Pakistan

Massive Flooding, Stewing Resentment In Pakistan

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129328497/129328439" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In Pakistan, three weeks after the worst flooding on record, waters continue to submerge villages in southern Punjab province. The flooded Indus River is beginning to recede, but not before washing away about 1 million homes and spreading disease.

The initial sluggish response from international donors has picked up pace as the United Nations now estimates that more than 8 million people are in urgent need of food, shelter and water.

In the south of the country, while the rains have subsided, the dire conditions have not.

Hungry flood victims beg for food. Men, women and children wade through waters teeming with venomous snakes. Strong currents sometimes pull people under as they attempt to return to their homes in villages that have become islands surrounded by floodwaters.

Villagers, displaced from their homes by flooding, fight for bags of flour during relief distribution Friday on the outskirts of Muzaffargarh in Punjab province. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images hide caption

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Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Villagers, displaced from their homes by flooding, fight for bags of flour during relief distribution Friday on the outskirts of Muzaffargarh in Punjab province.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Death On The Floodwaters

In the inundated district of Muzaffargarh, the headmaster of a government middle school, Abdul Hamid, has renal failure and needs dialysis. His doctor says he could die soon.

"We can't go to the hospitals. There is no transport. How can we go to the hospitals? It is a problem of life and death," Hamid says.

Last week, this school principal with an ashen face took a motorcycle over a badly rutted road to escape the flooding. He hasn't had dialysis since. "We have to be fatalists, and leave it to destiny," he says. "That is what is happening here."

In the same way that Hurricane Katrina laid bare the abject poverty of the U.S. Gulf Coast, Pakistan's floods have exposed dismal conditions and poor governance in southern Punjab province.

The provincial government insists it has deployed over 800 mobile medical units. But they have not been in evidence this week.

As a crowd gathers to watch the water rapidly rising in a canal outside the village of Shehr Sultan, local elders say they have never seen the Indus River flood this far east. The canal now raging with water has been dry for a decade, they say.

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Resentment Among The Poor

It is widely believed among people here that whatever measures were taken to divert the water protected the lands of the rich at the expense of the poor.

Sardar Zulfikar Khosa, an adviser to the chief minister of the Punjab, says that is not true.

"Who would be stupid enough to take on the responsibility of drowning say 30 villages or 40 villages? Which idiot would ever go and take such a decision? This is a collective decision. It is not — I repeat — not an individual's decision," he says.

Pakistani villagers lay sandbags.
Banaras Khan/AFP

The province's chief irrigation engineer says this unstoppable flood was "a once-in-500-years event."

But that hasn't stopped deep-seated resentment against Pakistan's wealthy and powerful from surfacing among the masses of poor, displaced people. "The cities have been spared while rural villages are drowning!" a crowd gathered in Shehr Sultan shouts.

Eighteen-year-old Mohammad Imran, an electrician, says if the government did show up in the village there could be trouble. "If we are suffering, we will not sit quiet," he says.

Zardari's 'Katrina'

The flooding that destroyed whole villages and killed at least 1,500 people has been called Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's Katrina.

Earlier this month, Zardari left the country on a European tour as floodwaters ravaged the northwest, an area teeming with militants.

There are fears that the Islamist militants could exploit the growing anger and undermine the government's fight against the Taliban and its honeycomb of associates.

Political analyst Haider Abbas Gardezi, who lives in the southern Punjab city of Multan, says that while the president showed insensitivity by taking his European trip, he is by no means the only one deserving blame in a government that was slow to act.

This is a defining moment for the government, Gardezi says.

"They are standing at a crossroads. They have to see that if they cannot manage things in a very proficient way — if they cannot go to the people in a very transparent, democratic, and friendly way — things can really fire back and this vacuum can be filled by those forces ... which we don't want," he says.

An Opening For Extremists?

Extremist groups have moved quickly to fill the void in relief work. Pakistan's interior minister said Friday that banned extremist groups will not be allowed to visit the flood-affected areas. But amid the current chaos in the flooded areas, it is not clear how such a ban could be enforced.

In the village of Bahawal Nala, surrounded by floodwaters and safely accessible only by boat, Zaffar Hussain and Pakistanis like him feel set adrift.

Tasleem Mai, 25, was washed out of her home near Muzaffargarh when the Indus River reached levels not seen in living memory. She now lives on the edge of the waterlogged road with her four children. Most flood victims have not gone to camps but are staying near their homes to ensure against theft. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

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Julie McCarthy/NPR

He buried his sister and his brother-in-law this week.

"Five people in my family were crossing this water in search of rations on the other side," he says. "We were holding hands, but got knocked over in the wake of a wave made by a passing truck. We lost our grip and my sister and her husband were swept away."

The cost of the flood is also counted in 4 million acres of ruined farmland, most of it here in the country's cotton belt.

Wasim Hassan Langrial, a doctor and farmer, has lost 500 acres of crops, mostly cotton, sugar cane and rice. He estimates that it will take eight to 10 years for Pakistani farmers to recover.

Eight million people need the bare necessities — shelter, food and clean water — yet from the perspective in Pakistan the global response to the crisis has been lackluster.

Meanwhile, the fatigued men and women and children of Pakistan are slogging through one watery indignity after another.