Pakistan: As floods move south, calls for debt cancellation grow
September 2, 2010 -- Democracy Now! -- In Pakistan, torrential rains a month ago that triggered unprecedented floods have moved steadily from north to south, engulfing a fifth of the country. Seventeen million people have been affected, and some five million have lost their homes. Meanwhile, a movement to cancel Pakistan’s external debt is now underway as campaigners plan a protest in front of Pakistan’s parliament house today to call on international institutions like the IMF to cancel the country’s debt.
Madiha Tahir, freelance journalist currently based in Karachi, Pakistan. Her work has appeared in The National, Columbia Journalism Review, Global Post, and Current TV.Qalandar Memon, editor of the journal Naked Punch and a member of the Labour Party of Pakistan.
JUAN GONZALEZ: In Pakistan, the massive flooding continues.
Torrential rains a month ago triggered unprecedented floods that have
moved steadily from north to south engulfing a fifth of the country.
Seventeen million people have been affected, and some five million have
lost their homes. According to the United Nations, more than eight
million children have made vulnerable because of the floods. The waters
also washed away huge swaths of farmland on which the country’s
struggling economy depends.
The UN has appealed for $460 million in emergency funds to help
deal with the immediate humanitarian crisis. So far, it’s only been able
to raise around two-thirds of that money.
Meanwhile, a movement to cancel Pakistan’s external debt is now
underway. Campaigners are planning a protest in front of Pakistan’s
parliament house today to call on international institutions, such as
the IMF, to cancel the country’s debt to help those affected by the
We go now to Pakistan to speak with Madiha Tahir, a freelance
journalist based in Karachi. She is just back from visiting the
flood-affected area of Sukkur in Sindh province. We’re also joined on
the telephone by Qalandar Memon, editor of the online journal Naked Punch and a member of the Labour Party of Pakistan.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
MADIHA TAHIR: Thank you. Hi.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Madiha, I’d like to start with you. Could you tell us about the situation that you’ve seen in the flood-ravaged areas?
MADIHA TAHIR: As you said,
I was in Sukkur, and there, you know, the water level is still very,
very deep. I mean, the sort of scale of the disaster is staggering. The
water is still anywhere from fifteen to thirty feet deep. You know, what
used to the farm houses now look like lakefront property. There are
villages that are completely surrounded by floodwaters and look like
little islands, and the only way to get to them is by boat. I went to
these villages, and people there told me that, you know, the government
had only sort of air-dropped food once or twice, and that’s it. And
since then, they’ve been living on whatever leftover goods that they
have. You know, then—and people are saying that if the water is not gone
by around September, the land may not be dry enough to sow wheat in
November, which is the regular farming cycle.
And then, you know, there are displaced people. There are the IDP
camps, which are run by local and international NGOs, the Pakistani
army, the government. And then there are people who’ve set up by
roadways, under bridges or, you know, just completely—you know, with
whatever livestock that they could save. I spoke to a woman who had
walked for three days with her seven kids and was set up under a bridge.
Another man I met, you know, had a child who looked about two months
old, but he insisted that the child was two years old. But the kid was
so famished and ill that he completely, you know, did not look his age.
These are people who are not able to go into camps, either because they
don’t have their ID cards, because they don’t want to leave their
livestock behind, which is required at some of these camps, or because,
you know, there were allegations in some of these—by some of these
people that they were not allowing non-Muslims at some of the camps.
You know, so it’s—there’s disease spreading, you know, by—both in
the IDP camps. I met a woman who had lost two kids. She said
gastroenteritis, but we don’t really know, because she was never able to
show them to a doctor. And, you know, then I met another man who had
lost his daughter to what he also said was gastroenteritis, but again,
we don’t really know. So the death toll from these floods is going to be
a lot higher than the sort of initial figure that everybody has kind of
latched onto. It’s not even clear if anybody is, you know, collecting
And then there are questions about—right now we’re kind of in the
relief phase. And then there are questions about, you know, how the
rehabilitation efforts will happen and whether it even makes sense for
these people to go back to the lands that they came from and to get
reintegrated into essentially what were, in this area, you know, feudal
relationships, feudal land relationships. And there are questions about
what the Pakistani government is or is not doing. So it’s a very
complicated situation on the ground.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Madiha, on that last issue of what the
Pakistani government is or isn’t doing, is it your sense that the
emergency response is largely coming from the military or from
government civilian organizations or emergency response groups?
MADIHA TAHIR: Well, this is a complicated question. I
mean, certainly the government, on a national level, has been quite
corrupt. They’ve been caught, you know, setting up fake medical and
relief camps for photo ops. But on the other hand, you know, the budget
for the army does come from the national government. You know, the army
is supposed to be the kind of boots on the ground of the government. In
this case, they seem to be sort of functioning autonomously. What the
government has been doing is—you know, people are saying, "Well, the
army is helping us, and the NGOs are helping us," but actually the
government is working through a lot of NGOs. The NGOs are either being
partially funded by or receiving goods from the government, that they
are then distributing to people. So they’re public-private partnerships,
so it’s not really that cut and dry, as it sometimes appears to be. I
mean, having said that, there’s obviously a lot of things that the
government is not doing. It’s not coordinating its various, you know,
arms that it could coordinate very well.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’d like to bring in Qalandar Memon
also on the discussion. Could you talk about this whole issue of the
rising move to call for the cancellation of Pakistan’s debt? How big is
it right now, and what are the prospects for that?
QALANDAR MEMON: Hello.
The move began almost immediately after the floods. I mean,
there’s been activists campaigning on this issue for a while. And given
the fact that our government is again talking to IMF, and it was
reported yesterday that tax increases and taxes on imports are possible,
including on food items, which would put inflation—which is likely to
be at 20 percent as a result of these floods—an increase of further 20
percent, that is—even further. So, activists and many members of
political social organizations have been thinking about this issue. And
there was an all-party conference two days ago in Lahore, and thirty
organizations attended. And there, a united platform was formed, and
today we have our first rally in Islamabad. And we have three other
rallies coming up in Karachi, in Lahore and again back to Islamabad over
the next month. In terms of how big the movement is, it’s getting
almost big by itself. There is a petition I saw online which has about
30,000 members—people have signed it.
And the argument we’re making is that most of the debt that
Pakistan incurs—and there’s a $55 billion external debt that we have at
the moment—has been incurred by dictators, so Ayub, Zia and Musharraf.
For example, when Musharraf took over, the debt, Pakistan’s external
debt, was $35 billion. And by the time he left, it was $49 billion. And
we do not feel that the Pakistani people should be paying this. And this
is going to be paid by future generations. And it hasn’t been used for
development. So these are some of our arguments. And the servicing on
this is $3.4 billion per year, and that is a huge amount. And if there’s
cancellation, of course, the economy can recover, and we can deal with
the floods appropriately.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Madiha Tahir, on the
issue of the continuing US drone strikes in the area of Pakistan, as it
continues to fight the spillover effects from the Afghanistan war, could
you—are those continuing? And were you able to, in your travels through
the flood-ravaged area, get any sense of the extent of how those
attacks are continuing?
MADIHA TAHIR: They are certainly continuing. I mean, even
as the US was promising aid, you know, initially $150 million or so, at
the same time—$150 million of aid for the flood—as a flood relief
package—at the same time, there was—excuse me—at the same time, there
were still drone strikes continuing. On August 14th, which is Pakistan’s
independence day, and when we were already in the middle of this
crisis, the flood crisis, there were drone strikes in the northern parts
So it’s a very schizophrenic policy, partially because if the
concern of the United States is indeed terrorism and stopping terrorism,
and there’s all this discussion about, you know, disaffection and
poverty as being causes of terrorism, certainly it would make more sense
to, you know, put the money that is now going toward drone strikes
towards flood relief. I mean, you now have 20 million people or so that
have been affected by this crisis. This is, you know, a quarter of
Pakistan is now underwater. So it’s a very schizophrenic policy. You
know, the amount of money that the US gives the Pakistan army for its
security efforts is, you know, about $150 million a month, which is
very—which is pretty much close to what they have promised as a sum
total package at the moment for flood relief. So it’s very—it’s a
strange policy, and there’s a lot of anger about it, as well. I mean, I
saw USAID camps, tents that had been given, and these were actually
simply just kind of plastic sheets that people had taken and had bought
their own sticks to prop up as tents, and they were falling in, I mean,
some of the worst, shabbiest tents around.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to also ask Qalandar Memon about
this. It’s been reported in the past few days about the diversion of
waters from the floods to save a US military base that was in the path
of the floodwaters. Could you talk about that?
QALANDAR MEMON: Yes. I just want to continue what Madiha
was saying, as well. I think the war is continuing on both sides. It’s
not just the US, but also the Pakistani military, and they really are
partners. And a good example of this would be, like, what you just ask
me about. The air base is called Shahbaz Air Base, and this is in
Jacobabad district. And the water could have been diverted. The water
was increasing in pressure and volume, and it could have been diverted
in two directions. One was toward the city where—Jacobabad city, where
900,000 people would have been affected. On the other side, it could
have been diverted, and far less people, less than 100,000, would have
been affected, but an air base would certainly have been sacrificed. And
the military, in the dead of night, breached the canal so that the
water goes towards the 900,000 people, as opposed to the air base. And,
you know, it’s said that the air base is in the control of US military
and that this is where the drones are flown from. And the secretary
of—health secretary, in fact, in the Senate committee said that relief
efforts cannot take place in Jacobabad, because the US government would
not allow flights from Shahbaz Air Base to take off for relief work. And
yesterday, there was an air strike by the Pakistan military—pardon
me—in the northern area, which killed around forty people. Now, the
headlines always say "militants," but we do not know how many were
militants and how many were innocent. So—and, of course, there was also
three bomb blasts in Lahore. So it seems that war continues while 17
million people are homeless and suffering.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We will continue to cover this story. Qalandar Memon is editor of the online journal Naked Punch and a member of the Labour Party of Pakistan. And Madiha Tahir is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.
The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.