Guest Editorial (0510 September 2010)

2 days in Northern Sindh

By Javed Jabbar

The enormity of the disaster which affects millions of people in all 4 provinces should be a test even for well-established governance and disaster management systems. For our level of preparedness, the official civil system can sometimes look like a disaster itself. Yet one should guard against presumptive cynicism particularly at such a time. Responsibility to cope is a universal obligation transcending all divisions and categories. Each person with any potential to contribute, from afar or near has an urgent duty to render.

Spending 14th and 15th August travelling from Karachi to Sukkur, Shikarpur, Khanpur and the edge of the advancing flood waters informs, despairs – and inspires.

On the drive north of over 400 kilometers, “normal” Pakistan hums and throbs with its reassuring abnormality and refreshing vitality. Even the usual arid, brown stretch between Karachi and Hyderabad is carpetted green by recent rains. Traffic, smoke and shops thrive. Yet occasional trucks overladen with refugees heading for Hyderabad and Karachi prepare for far worse to come.

The roadside camps of displaced people begin on the left bank of the Indus before the cross-over to Sukkur. Then they become frequent at all the other places visited. Charpoys, bundles of clothes and trunks, little girls and boys, women and men, cows and buffaloes, sheep and goats. By the hundreds. And the thousands.

When rural poverty is forcibly removed from its accustomed invisibility and suddenly thrown, topsy turvy, on bridges, pavements, open urban spaces: then the real contrasts of our society are harshly revived. It takes a natural disaster to highlight the unnatural disaster of an entrenched unjust economic and social system.

Refugees settle into 3 kind of camps. First : spontaneous, self-made roadside camps. Second: where existing structures such as schools, colleges and other buildings are converted into camps. Third: tented settlements specifically erected in the past 7 days, most visibly by the 3 Armed Forces.

The original disruption that brings people to these new dwellings is common to all 3. However, the levels of services available in these 3 categories can vary significantly. Provision of food, water, shelter, electricity (a luxury !), sanitation, (where, how ?) medicines / health care examination by doctors and paramedics. The rural poor look shocked at their sudden, overnight deprivation from even the most fundamental requirements which they have fulfilled by themselves for centuries.

The first category of camps is predictably the worst in all respects. The second category is obviously better than the first. The third is the best of all 3, if a superlative can be used in these conditions.

To some extent, praise and appreciation are more due than they are seen in news media. Coping with a scale and intensity never before experienced in our country's history – the 1947-48 migration of about 10 million people brought only human beings, not flood waters - both official systems and social support have responded readily.

Government authorities, beset with a widespread reputation for corruption and incompetence have acted swiftly. Departments of Irrigation, Education, Health, Relief, others, are monitoring water levels, management of embankments, conversion of buildings and enclosures into relief camps, supply of food and water, arrangements for sanitation, posting of doctors in camps, coordination with visiting teams. Efforts are being made to keep pace with excessive demand. Clearly far more efficiency and engagement are needed.

Despite a perception among some that the response both from within the country and from overseas to the 2010 tragedy is less than to the 2005 earthquake, there are many signs of indigenous systems, both official and non-official, contributing quickly to the needs of the refugees. Several national-level, regional and local public interest organizations and citizens have already reached affected areas. This writer is fortunate to be associated with one such national-level forum. SPO (Strengthening Participatory Organization), a rights-based grass-roots development organization established in 1994 presently works with about 2000 communities in 77 districts in all 4 provinces and AJK. SPO's partners are also present in north Sindh. The body has also been selected by the UN to help conduct rapid, accurate need-assessment and deliver relief support. SPO's website at www.spopk.org tries to provide an updated status of its work with local communities in the affected areas.

SPO-trained activists such as those one met in Khanpur on 15th August and the dedicated SPO staff typify the value at such times of indigenous human resources and participation for collective benefit. In contrast to the historic exploitation by feudals who continue to wield power and frequently combat each other.

Before and after Khanpur, we passed deceptively serene, lush green fields of rice until the excess liquidity of the floods blotted out the verdant shade. Our passage to Karampur was submerged compelling us to turn back. Water had already assumed a bizarre persona. Elsewhere, rushing, gushing pell mell through barrage gates and overpowering barriers. Here, silent, shimmering, deviously still, furtive, slowly creeping forward.

Citizens of north Sindh and from across the country have reached there with cash, commodities, clothes and other aid. Meals are being cooked on the spot in camps or nearby. Manual drilling is being done to reach sub-soil water and install hand pumps.

Overflowing toilets are being only occasionally cleaned. They represent a potent source for infection and disease which have begun to spread. Soak-pit latrines are being constructed or planned. Regular maintenance is a vital necessity.

Immediate prescriptive measures are already well-known. There is a paramount need for the National Disaster Management Authority and its Provincial wings / Relief Commissioners to be given all the resources and equally, the powers required to enforce co-ordination and delivery of the diverse official and non-official efforts being mobilized.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the relief camps, particularly those in categories 1 and 2, there is an urgent need to form female and male camp management committees. Through them, hopefully, in place of the recurrent scenes of disorder, strife and confusion, such participative committees may enforce discipline and fairness in access for all persons to the supply of relief goods and services.

Coverage by the electronic news media is timely. Yet it tends to be often one-sided and imbalanced. There is a preference to focus on refugees who have not received any help so far. There is inadequate reportage on numerous examples of courageous, generous effort, being made both by the Government and citizens, however insufficent they are in over-all terms. Perhaps deservedly in such a situation, the Armed Forces, outshine others with their disciplined, visible efforts. Virtually all other relief work is depicted in the media as being marked by absence of relief, suffering, strife or scrambling for scarce supplies.

This calamity has profound implications for virtually all aspects of our country. This includes the impact on those people and areas not directly affected at this time by the flood waters. Environment, human health, agriculture, livestock, food, agro industries, education, energy, physical infrastructure, housing, transport, rehabilitation, re-construction and the economy.

Despite the formidable challenge of this catastrophe, it is vital for each Pakistani to retain faith, above all, in our own national capacity to generate the spiritual, emotional and physical resources to face this crisis and, in time, to overcome it.

This article was also published in Dawn on 17th August, 2010 at the website : www.dawn.com