by Awais Masood
As an attempt to assess the situation after the devastating Pakistani floods, I along with two of my fellows visited Kot Addu on August 22nd. Kot Addu is a tehsil of Muzaffargarh district in Southern Punjab that has been heavily affected by the recent floods. The city, which lies quite close to Taunsa Barrage on River Indus, was evacuated in the wake of flood threat. and the low lying western section of city came under water. A railway line splits the affected and unaffected areas of the city. A few direct routes to the city remained under water for some time and alternative routes had to be taken. The one we took was opened only recently and a part of it was still under water. The road was damaged at various points where running water had submerged it for almost two feet.
Flood and Politics
Our conversation with residents of Kot Addu,- brought out that they were highly displeased at the way flood conditions were handled. According to them, the breach of embankment named Abbasid Bund at left bank (East) of River Indus was unprecedented. Historically, it was always the right bank (West) of River Indus at Taunsa Barrage that was inundated at the time of severe floods. The right bank areas on the side of Dera Ghazi Khan (DG Khan) district are less populated and hence flooding on that bank causes much less damage. During the floods this year, the West bank areas were instead flooded. These areas, including Kot Addu, are naturally low lying areas with a very large population. As a result, the damage was magnified to enormous proportions. Our hosts claimed that it was the powerful Khosa family of DG Khan which used its influence to protect their farm lands on the right bank side of River Indus. Hunjra, another political family of that area that owns farm lands and game ranches on the right bank side, was also pointed out for using political influence to protect their property and as a result inundating areas with large population. The residents pointed out that the affected areas come under the constituency of a PPP MNA and according to them, the provincial government of Punjab deliberately damaged the areas. Our hosts also pointed out strange management of Taunsa barrage at the time of flood where the barrage gates were shut down (instead of being opened) when large volume of flood water was to pass through the barrage.
The local residents also complained about the high handedness of the authorities when dealing with the demands of local population. Since the flood in River Indus had receded to an extent, the water, that submerged a large area, had started draining out through the breached embankment but instead of waiting for the water to drain out, the authorities started filling the breach. As a result, the large submerged areas may remain under water for months since there is no natural drainage for the water and sunlight cannot evaporate it. According to our hosts, when the local residents protested against this strategy, the Army officer in charge of the operation, threatened that he will order shooting of anybody who tried to interfere with his work.
People were also worried about the future prospects of agriculture in that area. The sowing season for wheat was about to start from September 15 (the optimum time will end in mid November) but a lot of areas were under water which does not seem to recede while wheat requires dry land to be sown. Late sowing of wheat from mid November to mid January is also possible but it provides low yield and requires relatively large effort and input.
Taunsa Punjnad Link Canal and Taunsa Barrage
We were facilitated in Kot Addu by people who work under the platform of a local development organization named Hirrak Development Center that works for Education, Women Rights, Governance and Democracy, Food Rights and fishing rights of indigenous riverine community of River Indus. We left for Taunsa Barrage
along with two doctors, one a senior cardiologist from Multan, the other a young doctor from Kot Addu and two workers of Hirrak. We crossed Muzaffargarh Canal and Taunsa-Panjnad (TP) Link Canal. Both of these canals originate from Taunsa Barrage and the breaches in them, due to the flood, caused an extensive damage in large areas of Muzaffargarh Distirct. In order to reach Taunsa Barrage, we travelled on a dirt road at the embankment of TP Link Canal. Along the road we witnessed the people affected by the flood taking shelter on the high ground. There was no organized or centralized relief camp at that side to take care of those people. Most of them had been provided with water proof tents by USAID and I saw one elderly man drinking clean water from a can probably supplied by USAID or some other relief organization. Our vehicle came to a halt at almost two kilometers from Taunsa Barrage at what seemed like a bustling bus terminal with multiple vehicles parked and people waiting. It came out that it was the end of the road because the canal had been breached and the only way to go forward was through boats. We hired a boat, loaded our medicine and took to the other side which equally seemed like a bus terminal. People would ride their motor cycles to one end, load their bikes into boats, crossed water and then again rode to their destination on motor bikes. It was as if somehow the disaster acted in a way to make, past and present overlap and combine old and new ways of travel and communication at the same time.
A car, arranged by our hosts, came to take our team members and medicine to the required destination across River Indus while the rest of us walked half of the way before being picked up by the car. On our way, we had a look at the devastation caused by flood in the ‘kaccha’ area where vast areas of land were submerged in water. According to our colleague, those areas were heavily cultivated and populated. But at that time, those areas seemed deserted and lifeless under water with no sign of any previous human presence.
On our way, I saw a man filling an empty water can with flood water below. I was not able to figure out whether he ran out of clean water and intended to use that contaminated water for drinking or he only needed that water for non-drinking purposes. In any case, the contaminated and stale water can cause serious skin diseases even if used only for washing purposes.
Our destination was at half a kilometer distance after crossing River Indus through Taunsa Barrage bridge. Here a small shop served as the location for our medical camp. The camp was organized in such a fashion that ou r two colleagues from Hirrak, who were fluent in local dialect of Seraiki , were appointed outside and were assigned the task to note down patient’s name and initial symptoms on a paper slip. After a patient had his/her slip prepared, he/she was asked to wait in the queue. Both doctors examined one patient each at a time and prescribed the medicine as per diagnosis. The patient was then asked to receive medicine from two of the dispensers (I being one of them) who were located at a little distance from the doctors. On of our colleagues managed the patients’ queue. In this way, we were able to serve almost four hundred patients in almost three hours time. The number of patients did not reduce till the end but we had to call a day since we wanted to return before dark and the number of patients that we had served was already overwhelming and exhausting for the whole team. After the camp, our local hosts from that area, in a kind act of hospitality, offered us fried Indus water fish for lunch (religiosity and rituals are almost absent in the areas hit by calamities). A large percentage of the patients were suffering from skin infections, allergies, fever and stomach problems. A few cases of malaria were also noted.
When we left for the flood affected areas, a few of us were more interested in long term rehabilitation efforts but our point of view changed after witnessing the scale and nature of destruction. Unlike, earthquake and IDP crisis, which were sudden and concentrated to specific regions, this disaster is silent, widespread and growing. There is no way for a stranger to find out where the people -who lived in now submerged locations- have gone. A silence prevails across the sufferers and the state regarding the future strategy and plans to rehabilitate.
It is also difficult for the people living in metropolitans to imagine the nature of terrain surrounded by multiple rivers and characterized by complex network of irrigation canals and roads. There is no simple way for the flood water to recede, once it has inundated a large area of such terrain, since many obstacles like roads, railway tracks, relative height of different locations determine the flow of water. Long term rehabilitation is an important task but it may not be possible in many areas due to the nature of flood and such areas will remain in the need of aid in the form of food and medical supplies for a significant amount of time.
The logistics of aid need to be revisited, redefined and coordinated. My personal opinion remains that it is unwise to take trucks, loaded with food items, hundreds of kilometers away from Lahore to areas in Southern Punjab. Unless the relief goods are of such nature that they are not available or cannot be procured in comparable prices from Multan, it makes no sense to spend money on an operation that is logistically wasteful. Organizations and groups working for relief efforts in Southern Punjab should coordinate their efforts in such a way that they could be managed from Multan.