Shattered biradari

Photographs by Shiraz Mukarram; Text by Urooj Zia

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The Indus floods of 2010 have left more than 1700 people dead, more than two million homeless, and have directly or indirectly affected around 20 million people in Pakistan, devastating a country that was already battling a number of existential threats. Moreover, almost two months after the first flash-floods hit Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (the former NWFP) in late July, the tragedy has by no means ended – it will not for years to come.

While the waters have begun to recede, they are doing so extremely slowly. In the process, they are flooding minor rivers and tributaries, causing massive overflows in the surrounding  areas. Bridges and road links have either been inundated or destroyed, and more helicopters than are available are needed for rescue and relief.

Those who have been rescued, meanwhile, need food, shelter, clothing, medicines – and fodder for cattle. Many were evacuated at less than an hour's notice. While they knew that the floodwaters were headed their way, most initially stayed put because few realised the magnitude of the floods in the beginning. Further, nearly all of these were poor people, mostly tenant farmers and sharecroppers, whose lives revolved around the hamlets in which they lived. Voluntarily leaving homes, cattle and standing crops behind was a decision they were not ready to make, at least at first. Moreover, many had limited means of transporting their cattle, which are major contributors to the rural economy. But eventually, what does one take when one is ordered to evacuate in less than an hour? As can be seen in the accompanying photographs, many left with only a few changes of clothes for the children, and whatever cattle they could drag along.

Moreover, in rural Pakistan, entire families are typically centred on a single hamlet. This means that most of those who have been uprooted have no one to turn to for help, because the entire biraderi has been rendered homeless simultaneously. More alarming is the lack of availability of clean drinking water at camps set up for these 'internally displaced'. While mass availability of clean drinking water has always been an issue in many areas of Pakistan, the situation has now reached crisis levels. Cholera, diarrhoea, gastroenteritis, typhoid, Hepatitis B and C, and skin diseases have started raging through the more populous camps.

In the agricultural economy, meanwhile, farmers save seeds from one year's crops to use the next year. With this year's crops destroyed, farmers no longer have seeds for next year. Wheat will be planted in October; but before that can happen, the land will have to be restored and made usable. Not only are massive investments required for this, but the process will also delay the crop cycle, increasing the already critical issue of food insecurity in the country. Some activists have also been reporting on how global seed giants (such as Monsanto) are taking advantage of the situation – distributing genetically modified seeds for free among farmers desperate to get their lives back on track. This is another issue that the government needs to look into, even while it struggles to rebuild six decades' worth of washed-away infrastructure.

With the agricultural heartlands in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, southern Punjab and Sindh destroyed, the people of Pakistan today stand at a crossroads. Many are now suggesting that the economy will not grow for the next five years, while the increase in taxes to add to the flood-relief kitty will feed into inflation in a country already reeling from economic pressures.

~ Shiraz Mukarram is a photojournalist and reporter working for The News International newspaper in Karachi.

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