Floods that hit Pakistan in July left trees ravaged and fields coated with an ashen dust. While many people in the northwest have returned to their homes, some parts of the south are still underwater.
Floods that hit Pakistan in July left trees ravaged and fields coated with an ashen dust. While many people in the northwest have returned to their homes, some parts of the south are still underwater. Julie McCarthy/NPR
In Pakistan, millions of people are starting over after devastating floods. The World Bank says direct damage to property and crops will exceed $9 billion — more than a quarter of the country's national budget. While parts of the southern Sindh province are still underwater, most of the people in the northwest, where the floods began, have returned home.
Qismat Ali, 50, stands in the foundation of the two-room house he was building in the Charsadda district when floods hit Pakistan in late July, washing away fields, crops, livestock, homes and schools.
Qismat Ali, 50, stands in the foundation of the two-room house he was building in the Charsadda district when floods hit Pakistan in late July, washing away fields, crops, livestock, homes and schools. Julie McCarthy/NPR
The slow pace of recovery and rehabilitation, however, has produced widespread disgust.
As Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani visited the hard-hit Charsadda district recently, the people of the Sher Payan neighborhood didn't pay any attention to the buzzing helicopters in the sky. They weren't planning to go see Gilani because, they said, they don't matter to his government.
Fifty-year-old Qismat Ali, a carpenter, stood in the still-flooded foundation of a house he was building before the floods swept it away. He pointed to his attire — long trousers hiked up, bare feet in the mud — and said he doubted that anyone would let him near the prime minister.
"The police are there and the army is there with their fingers on the trigger. They consider me a terrorist. They consider this old man a terrorist. Nobody is allowing the poor man to get close," he said in his native Pashto. "And we don't have time to press our rights. We have families to feed."
Nearby, children were flying kites in a field blanketed with ashen dust — residue from the floods. It's difficult to find a child in this area who doesn't bear some mark of illness: a bald spot, for instance, or mottled skin. Two women scour the neighborhood to vaccinate against polio.
Wajahat Bibi, a mother of six, expresses a theme that has echoed since the floods started — that aid is being distributed not on the basis of need but on the basis of political patronage.
Wajahat Bibi, a mother of six, expresses a theme that has echoed since the floods started — that aid is being distributed not on the basis of need but on the basis of political patronage. Julie McCarthy/NPR
"Even now we don't have any quilts or blankets," said resident Wajahat Bibi, a mother of six who knows that winter falls fast in Pakistan's northwest frontier, known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. "And whatever aid is coming here, it goes to the chieftains and these rich people, and then they distribute it among their own people."
That criticism of the government has been heard again and again — at the start of the floods and now more than two months later. Does that mean Pakistanis want to throw out the current government? Wajahat thought so. Through an interpreter, she said people "would vote for a dog before they'd vote again for President Asif Ali Zardari."
As residents of her village stack bricks to rebuild the physical damage, across town the government is trying to repair the political damage. The floods that destroyed millions of homes and thousands of bridges and schools also broke whatever tenuous bond there might have been between citizen and government.
Gilani crisscrossed the flood zone, engaging in damage control with the party faithful on hand. In Charsadda, he distributed ATM cards to a handful of flood victims, who will be able to withdraw the equivalent of $250 in cash. The program has been mired in confusion, but that barely got a mention during the visit.
He briefly took questions from the media and was asked what he would say to those who had lost patience over the slow pace of compensation programs.
"Because of criticism, we took a lot of time to create mechanisms that are transparent," he said. But everyone who lost a house — rich or poor — will be compensated some $1,200, he said.
Flooded families are still waiting.
Where the government faltered, civil society stepped in, and what the nongovernmental organizations couldn't do, individuals did for themselves.
Mohammad Ashraf, a farmer, said he couldn't step foot on his field for a month, or he'd sink up to his knees or his thighs in the muck. Now, he's the only one in his village who was able to replant in the fall — because he borrowed money. He says the government has given him nothing, and he's not surprised.
"We're orphans accustomed to weeping," he said. "We seem to have parents only when the politicians want our vote."
The Obama administration privately worries about the government collapsing under the weight of this calamity.
"There's never been 20 million people affected by a disaster like this," said Mark Ward, USAID director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.
The public pronouncements are rosier — like those saying U.S. aircraft delivered 15 million pounds of supplies, or the U.S. provided nearly a half-billion dollars in flood relief or helped Pakistan avert a cholera epidemic by erecting dozens of clinics.
But in the face of such hopeful assessments, there are the masses in Pakistan who have a very different view of how things are going.