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PAKISTAN: NATURAL DISASTER TO SOCIAL CATASTROPHE

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Toronto. And in Pakistan, people are going through what is perhaps one of the worst natural calamities of our time, but not just a natural calamity, also a failure of humans. And writing in a paper recently, Prof. Snehal Shingavi writes the following: "The massive dam and canal network that threads through Pakistan was built in the interests of large landowners and big capitalists rather than the people. This has meant that infrastructure repair and emergency relief have been extremely lopsided, and organized around preserving the interests of the landed elite rather than around flood prevention." A little further on, he writes: "In Punjab and Sindh, it wasn’t the rain that caused the flooding, but rather the fact that there are no large flood control mechanisms built into the irrigation network." Now joining us from Austin, Texas, is Prof. Snehal Shengavi. He teaches at the University in Austin. Thanks for joining us, Snehal.

SNEHAL SHENGAVI, ASST. PROF., UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN: Thanks for having me.

JAY: Now, I understand that one of the major dams—I think they’re called "barrages" there—there was recently a pretty big investment by the World Bank in re-fixing and rebuilding a dam that had been first built in 1958. Wasn’t the whole point of this dam to stop what we’ve just seen? And why didn’t it?

SHENGAVI: Well, you’re talking about the Taunsa Barrage. I mean, that’s one of the major sort of networks, one of the major points in the canal networks that exist in the Indus basin. Now, Pakistan has one of the largest canal networks and irrigation systems anywhere in the world. And what happens is that you produce these barrages, which then divert water into the canals and basically help to irrigate what used to be very, very dry land and make it arable, make it useful for agriculture. What has happened is that instead of the water flowing through the barrage, it’s been, because of years and decades of sedimentation and silt, clogging it, the raising of the bottoms of the river much, much higher–instead of the barrage actually being an effective stop to the flows coming down the river, water actually broke through one of the embankments and then produced its own strategy for solving the problem. And what essentially happened is that instead of going through the river, it ended up flooding the canals and flooded all of the farmland, flooded all of the places in Sindh and Punjab that those canals would connect to. So, essentially, you had a much more exacerbated crisis than would have happened had you had normal water flowing through the Indus.

JAY: So what happened to that $140 million the World Bank gave to Pakistan to rebuild this?

SHENGAVI: These kinds of dam projects are done all the time. And, in fact, much of the infrastructural development that happens in Pakistan at this scale depends on international money. That money was used; it was used to help shore up that barrage. But what didn’t happen were environmental impact studies, which would have helped to talk about the effect of that barrage. There was no plan put in place when that barrage was refurbished to talk about what to do in the event of flooding. And more importantly, the strategy that the canal networks have been designed to pursue all throughout Pakistan has been primarily to produce more agricultural land, which means that when the Indus was not as shored up by these dams, canals, and barrages, you used to have large sections next to the river that were essentially wetlands that would capture floodwaters in some of the instances where the river would overflow. Those have all been replaced by farmland, and farmland is not as good at absorbing that kind of water in these kinds of meteorological events. So essentially the combination of building the canal networks, of primarily organizing water flow in Pakistan for the production [of] more and more agricultural space, has meant that climate problems or problems created by climate change, especially things like the monsoon this year, which have been particularly bad, are made much, much worse.

JAY: Well, that’s the question. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with more arable land, is it? I mean, I know it makes landlords richer, but it also produces more food and more work for people in the area.

SHENGAVI: That’s right. But it’s not the only concern when you are talking about land use. So there are all kinds of ways to use certain land, and not all land has to be turned into arable land. And there are consequences to the turning of essentially dry coastal areas, parts of which were actually desert, into land of this kind of rich agricultural soil. So if you look at what even folks who are studying water impact in Pakistan are telling you, Pakistan, you know, routinely suffers from droughts because it doesn’t have enough water to sustain the arable land that exists in Punjab and Sindh. Part of the reason the dams were set up in Pakistan—I mean, this goes back to the beginning of, you know, the 20th century—the reason was to capture water in the monsoon season, especially as the glaciers are melting in the Himalayas, and then allow that water to be released in sort of the off-season, when the river level is much lower. And the entire production of this kind of infrastructure is based on turning land that was not suited for this kind of agriculture into a very dense agricultural land. I think that there’s got to be a balance that’s found. In fact, if you look at what most environmental engineers in Pakistan say, it’s possible actually to do both of these things simultaneously if we’ve got a concerted effort to do so. The primary barrier to a holistic solution to both water flow, ecology, and the production of sufficient enough food to feed the people of Pakistan are the landlords who are opposed to those kinds of plans, who see in their short-term interest detriments if canals are rediverted, if banks are shored up in different ways. They’re actually invested in keeping things going the way that they are.

JAY: To what extent is this the result of, you can say, either incompetence or negligence of the Pakistani authorities, or shortsightedness, or that the scale of the amount of rain and water is just that much greater, and perhaps because of climate change? Or is it—I guess it could be both.

SHENGAVI: Well, that has to be said: climate change has produced some very, very bad rains. I mean, this is beyond the scale of anything anyone can imagine. And I’m not trying to suggest that if the dams were different or if the Indus was organized differently that the flooding wouldn’t happen. There would be some flooding. What I am suggesting is that the catastrophe has been created by human intervention into that ecosystem and into the way that society’s organized in Pakistan. So take, for instance, another report that was in Dawn newspaper just a few days ago, where people in Jacobabad and Jafarabad, essentially the leaders of those two towns, were competing to decide which town would get flooded. Water had to be released. I mean, literally, men with guns showed up to the canals and fought it out until one side was opened up. And it flooded an entire town, because people, the folks in Jacobabad and Jafarabad, wanted to save their own land, as opposed to figuring out a solution to the floodwater. And in fact what you’ve seen happening all over Pakistan in small places are landlords going to the canals, going to the barrages, and literally demanding certain kinds of release patterns to the water, so that poorer sections are flooded, so that their lands are preserved and their competitors’ lands are destroyed. And this is not actually—it’s not just not rational, it’s not incompetence on the part of Pakistani engineers, who are quite talented; it’s actually the social structure that’s set up in Pakistan, which forces competition in this particularly vicious way, and it takes advantage of the kind of the anarchy that exists when you have a state that’s as venal and corrupt as the Pakistani state is.

JAY: That example you gave of the two villages, is that an example where one village was—in terms of wealthier landlords, and the one that gets flooded was poor, or no?

SHENGAVI: That’s right. That’s right. But basically it also comes down to guns, it also comes down to resources. I think I gave the example in the article that you quoted from of what happened downriver from the Taunsa Barrage. One of the posher sections of town decided that they were going to build a wall around them, and it flooded the poorer sections right next to them. And that’s been sort of a kind of pattern. When I talk about the lopsidedness of the response, richer, more resourced areas, places with more political connections get aid delivered quicker, they get infrastructural help faster, they get the resources that they need to survive the flooding much, much better than the poor people. In fact, there is extraordinarily disproportionate way that the poor, especially poor farmers, poor city dwellers, are affected by the [flooding], in a way that the rich of Pakistan are not.

JAY: The Punjab, I guess partly because of this diversion of water, had become what people are calling or had been calling the bread basket of Pakistan, one of the major sources of supply of food not just for Pakistan but for Afghanistan too. What are likely to be the consequences of this flood to the food supply of the region?

SHENGAVI: Is going to be quite bad. You’re basically talking about the entirety of this year’s winter crop being wiped out because of the flooding. And that’s calamitous. Pakistan was hoping, actually, to be a food exporter this year as opposed to what has happened in the last few years, which is that there have been food and bread riots that have taken place all throughout Pakistan because of mass shortages of food supply in Pakistan. They were actually hoping, because of the global rise in food prices, to be able to export some of that stuff. So it’s going to have consequences in terms of, you know, what people are actually going to have available to them in terms of adequate food. It’s going to look very, very bad this year. It’s also going to have a devastating effect on the economy. Just the sheer quantity of land that’s been destroyed is unbelievable. Some—one-fifth of the land in Pakistan right now is submerged by the floodwaters. But it’s also going to have, I think, more importantly, really serious social consequences. Much of the money that they’re using for relief work in Pakistan is being redirected from development projects that Pakistan had hoped to help, you know, revitalize some of these areas that were suffering from the inequalities that exist in Pakistan. And now you’re basically playing catch-up, as opposed to helping the country move forward. In fact, it’s not going to be for several years until the country actually catches up to where it was before this flood happened. They’re estimating something like $20 billion worth of reconstruction will be necessary just to get the country back on track, and that’s money that Pakistan just does not have.

JAY: And no talk of diverging any of the war budget towards that, I suppose.

SHENGAVI: That’s right. Pakistan is one of these countries which has a disproportionately high military expenditure, and it gets money from the United States disproportionately towards its military, as opposed to development work, so, you know, to the tune of $1 billion a year Pakistan has been getting from the United States to help fight the war on terror. Compare that to the aid that it’s getting for flood relief, and it’s completely ludicrous what the priorities of the American government are. You have to add on top of this the fact that Pakistan has been in the last several months under extraordinary pressure from the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to restructure its budget to force through austerity measures in the country because it just accepted some $10 billion of IMF loan money, and that comes, of course, with strings in terms of how Pakistan can spend it. All of those things are going to come to a pretty acute head as the kind of implications of this flooding emerge in the next several days, months, and years. You’re talking about massive health-care problems. I mean, just diseases are coming back that should have been eradicated decades ago—cholera, hepatitis, all kinds of things from bad water. The displacement of people internally in Pakistan is massive. Millions of people have lost their homes inside of Pakistan. And those are going to produce some extraordinary social problems in the country. The only one that the Americans seem to care about is terrorism, you know, that somehow disaffected people just go running into the hands of the Taliban or something. But there are more acute social problems that are going to emerge: fights between ethnic populations in Pakistan over limited resources; acute famine that’s going to happen when the food supply is just eviscerated in the way that it is; power shortages; you know, schools that have been destroyed; etc. This is very, very disastrous for this country.

JAY: And I guess in terms of climate-change politics, perhaps the shape of things to come. Thanks very much for joining us, Snehal. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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