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Natural disaster and human greed in Pakistan

On the road in from the airport, the water shimmered under the moonlight as men, women and children sat in the dark near the would-be lakeshore. During the day, river dolphins can usually be spotted in the nearby river. Idyllic, you might think. But this dusty and ramshackle town is at the front-line of one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters in living memory. Usually there is no water lapping up at the roadside, and the only people there would be those out for an evening snack after the daytime Ramadan fast. But since torrential monsoon rain sent the Indus River spilling onto towns and farmland the length of Pakistan, an area the size of Italy has been deluged.

In downtown Sukkur, I spoke to Ashraf, who said he had left his family at the outskirts before coming into town to buy some food. 'We managed to gather up some of our possessions before the waters came, but we did not have much warning. Our home is under water completely. I have enough money to feed my children for another couple of days, that is all.' Like a few more flood victims I encountered, he had to pay three times the normal price for a bus to the city, as opportunists capitalise on people's desperation, to make a quick rupee.

Nature's unwitting cruelty was followed, here and there, then, by man's calculated greed. The last time a natural disaster hit this country, 80,000 people died in thirteen seconds when an earthquake rocked Kashmir. This time, the death-toll is much lower and the disaster is unfolding slowly over many weeks. But the impact is vast – running the entire 1976 mile length of the Indus River from the mountainous north of Pakistan, where that 2005 quake hit, to these flood-prone plains in the south.

Everywhere cases of diarrhea, cholera, skin diseases, as well as malaria and dengue – with mosquitoes proliferating amid the floodwaters – are growing. Almost 5 million people now have no access to clean water, an irony seemingly lifted from Coleridge's line about 'water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.'

17 million acres of land is under water and, out of the mind-boggling 20 million people thought to be affected by the floods – around 800,000 remain beyond the reach of aid workers or the Pakistani army, cut off by the rising waters that dissolved bridges and submerged roads. This disaster seems as vast as the swollen country-long lake that the Indus River has become, but the real human suffering and loss can be obscured by or sanitised into mere statistics – with people's lives traduced by the actuary-level numbers required to account for such vast destruction.

The name Sukkur is derived from the Arabic word for intense, according to some historical accounts that date the place-name to Umayyad conquerors who marched east to this region over a millennium ago. For aid workers trying to help the displaced who are now – for want of a better word – flooding the town, the epithet seems apt. Brian Casey worked at the forefront of relief operations in Haiti after the recent earthquake and in Burma after the 2008 Cyclone Nargis – with Irish NGO GOAL. He says that the extent of the slowly-unfurling crisis in Pakistan comes close to these massive disasters. 'People are hungry, people are getting sick, and we don't know yet how much worse things will get as the water rises in places. And at the same time we have to think about how to help people rebuild homes and farms once the waters recede.'

Outside the city, Nizam Ud Din Bharchood of Pakistani charity 'Hands' takes me to a string of ad-hoc campsites along the highway. At one, around thirty women and children lolled under trees in the dust-infused forty-degree heat. 'Some of these people are here almost three weeks without shelter, without regular food or water', he says. 'The men have gone into the city to see if they can get work somehow.'

Hands has been helping out with food and medicine since the start of the flood, and is partnering with GOAL to reach more people. Back to numbers again, and these are rising in tandem with the still-swelling waters in an odd sort of danse macabre, 4 million Pakistanis are now homeless, and another 600,000 are threatened down-river in this southern region. This means they might have to flee as well with two more weeks of monsoon rains expected.

Mohammed Ramza had less than a day to pack up with his family, and move, along with all his neighbours, to the roadside outside Sukkur. 'Our homes were destroyed, we managed only to save a few animals', he said, pointing to a half-dozen goats sitting in the shade, their ears tugged-at by a trio of giggling children, none of whom are more than five years old. Ignoring maternal admonitions to leave the animals alone, they compete to play up for the foreigner's camera, some temporary respite from their still-unfinished ordeal.

Simon RoughneenFreelance journalist Simon Roughneen is in Sindh, southern Pakistan. Image: Watching the waters rise again, Shahdadkot, Sindh province (Simon Roughneen).

Topic tags: Pakistan, flood, disaster, Indus River, NGOs, greed



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Existing comments

Greedy people are common in the general population however it seems that they go up a level, several levels when there is desperation around.

They should be reported and 'greed' should be made 'illegal' during such troubling times.

It's at these times other countries should be sending in their troops to monitor such situations.

At the end of the day even during these situations, the greedy, rich individuals profit.

rhonda | 01 September 2010  

Thank you Simon for the empathy in your article.

Ray O'Donoghue | 01 September 2010  

Does anyone wonder why India has not been as affected by these rains? At least partly because they have invested in dams and canals, and general flood prevention strategies. But not the feudal princedoms of Pakistan, dominated by corruption,exploitation, militarism, nuclear arms spending, terrorism, fundamentalism, bad governance etc etc.

Eugene | 02 September 2010  

While I'm sure there are lots of greedy people in Pakistan, their existence doesn't explain the hike in transport costs. If greedy X makes a supernormal profit, it's in the interest of greedy Y to enter the market with an identical good or close substitute, underprice X and take a piece of the action. Greedy Z will do the same to both. This will go on until the price begins to approach the interest rate.

If the price stays for long at the plateau of three times the normal price, this would suggest that perhaps the profit is close to the long run interest rate already. IE, that no super-normal profit is being made, perhaps because the extra revenue is being offset by extra costs (rising local petrol prices due to difficulties of supply?)

Also note that not just transport services, but (according to reports) prices of food and most other goods have skyrocketed all through the regions affected. Is every shopkeeper over there “greedy”? Hardly – in this time of tragedy and unpredictability it’s perfectly understandable that they’ll hold on to essential supplies for themselves and their families, so that only significantly higher bids will induce them to sell.

HH | 02 September 2010  


"This will go on until the price begins to approach the interest rate."

should read

"This will go on until the profit level begins to approach the interest rate."


HH | 02 September 2010  

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