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The worst disaster in Pakistan’s history

There is a photograph of a young woman wading through fetid black water clutching a child’s tricycle. Rubbish and clothes float around her as she stares into vacant space, her gaze abstracted and lost. This is just one of the hundreds of stark images showing submerged villages and cities with their bewildered inhabitants left to languish and die in waterlogged squalor.

On his visit to the blighted areas, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon described the flooding in Pakistan as the worst disaster he had ever seen. “This has been a heart-wrenching day for me,” he said. He urged other countries to help Pakistan in its hour of need, “This is a major disaster and I hope that the international community will respond generously.”

The death toll is almost touching 2,000 and is expected to rise with the outbreak of waterborne diseases and a shortage of clean drinking water. Reports from the stricken province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa indicate that over 100,000 people, the majority children, are suffering from gastroenteritis and skin diseases caused by contaminated water. It is estimated that the flood has affected a staggering 20 million people – more than the combined total of those hit by the 2004 tsunami and the Kashmir and Haiti earthquakes.

With hundreds of thousands forced to abandon their homes in search of shelter and food, displacement seems to have become a horrific characteristic of Pakistan ¬– a phenomena recurring with alarming scale and frequency. The 2005 earthquake uprooted millions, as did Pakistan’s more recent crisis of dispossession in the wake of military action in Pakistan’s northern areas. Pakistan’s teeming Afghan refugees also live a homeless existence.

Over 750,000 people were forced to flee Muzaffargarh when, at 4 am on August 9, local mosques alerted residents to the impending disaster. As people abandoned their homes, making their way to Multan, roads were heaving with traffic in the form of buses, donkey carts and wagons.  Shaukat Ali from Budh was heading to Multan with his family on a motorcycle. He said that petrol was not available and his children were hungry as there was no food or milk.

400,000 people had fled from elsewhere, converging on Muzaffargarh, finding themselves compelled to move yet again.  But some have steadfastly refused to keep on moving, preferring to find shelter in the trees or simply die. Ghulam Abbas from Kot Addu summed up the despair of the people: “We would prefer to die because we simply cannot afford another displacement.” Their lives uprooted and overturned, their anger is palpable as lives have been swallowed by the flood.

The floods have exposed the endemic poverty prevailing in Pakistan as fragile homes collapsed and shabby infrastructure was unable to withstand the deluge. With spiralling inflation and food security already an urgent issue in Pakistan, rising food prices and shortages will be felt across the country as crops have been destroyed by floodwaters. Rice and cotton crops in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh have been destroyed as well as fruit orchards in Swat. This is of particular concern as agriculture is the mainstay of Pakistan’s fragile economy, employing 45% of the labour force and accounting for 21% of GDP.
Though violence and instability have become a hallmark of life in Pakistan, the unprecedented depredations suffered in recent days by the Pakistani people have been nothing less than harrowing. This flood won’t recede in the collective memory of horrors endured by the people.

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