A year after the floods, deep scars remain

by Eoghan Rice | Trocaire - Ireland
Wednesday, 7 September 2011 16:01 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I had never met a slave before I went to Pakistan. It’s a strange feeling to talk with someone who is owned by another man. Yet, here he was: 61-year-old Ghulam Rasool telling me how four generations of his family had lived under the control of a rich landowner.

The inequality of Pakistani society strikes you almost the minute you get off the plane. This is a country where unimaginable wealth and unthinkable poverty live side by side; a country that boasts nuclear weapons and starving children.

Those inequalities were highlighted by the floods which devastated Pakistan this time last year. Twenty million people – the vast majority of them small farmers - were left homeless as the River Indus burst its banks and covered the country.

One year on, the evidence of the devastation can still be seen throughout the Sindh Province of southern Pakistan, which was one of the areas worst affected. Of the millions forced from their villages, most have managed to return home, but tens of thousands remain living in tents by the roadside.

Some, like Raju Solangi, the 12-year-old boy I met whose one wish is to be able to go back to school, are simply unable to afford the journey back to their home towns. Others, like Ghulam Rasool, refuse to return to their lives of slavery, insisting that their new life – a life without money, food, cooking facilities, sanitation or a roof over their heads – is better than what they knew before the floods came.

“I would rather die than go back,” said Ghulam as he told me of his life as a slave.

These are the forgotten people. The people who, twelve months after the floods, are living in limbo; unable to stay where they are but with nowhere else to go.

Even those who have returned home are finding that life post-flooding bears little resemblance to the life they once knew. Sher Mohd Khoso is from a fishing community on the edges of Manchar Lake. The people here never had much – they had no crops, no industry, no farms. They survived solely on the contents of Manchar Lake for their survival. There was a cruel irony in the lake rising up and destroying everything it had ever given them.

Like 20,000 others, Sher Mohd Khoso was rescued from the flood by Trócaire’s partner organisation, the Pakistani Fisherfolk Forum. For three months, Sher and his community survived on the generosity of the Irish people who, through Trócaire, provided them with tents, food, water, medicine and other essential items.

They were thankful for the help but understandably eager to return home. When the flood water finally receded, Sher and the people who lived on Manchar Lake made the journey back to their villages. Their homes were washed away, their few possessions gone. Worse still, many of their boats and fishing nets were destroyed beyond repair.

Sher has not been able to fish since before the floods. He has no means to provide for himself or his family, instead relying on the generosity of his friends. They are glad to help, but as pollution steadily decreases fish stocks in Manchar Lake finding food for everyone is becoming increasingly difficult.

This is now the reality of life for many of Pakistan’s 170 million people. The floods of 2010 have left a devastating scar on a country already ravaged by dehumanising poverty. Far from the image of religious extremism now so widely associated with the country, the vast majority of people in Pakistan are waging a far more fundamental battle: that for survival. It is food and education that concerns them, not geopolitics.

People in Pakistan want a future; they want something for their children to aspire to. The floods of 2010 have laid bare the poverty and inequality which acts as a daily reminder that at the moment they do not have those rights.

But still they dream. In an abandoned building close to the tent she now calls home, Gulshad Chandio remembers the friends and life she left behind the day her family escaped the floods. She misses a lot about her old life but this 8-year-old misses one place more than anything else: her school.

Gulshad wants to learn because she wants to be a doctor. Not just any sort of doctor, either – Gulshad wants to be a doctor who helps those who need it most.

"I want to go back to school so as I can become a doctor," she says. "When I become a doctor I will not charge people - I will give health for free."

At the age of just 8, Gulshad understands that healthcare is a privilege reserved for the rich. She understands that her society is divided between those who have too much and those who have nothing at all. And, as she settles into her thirteenth month squeezed into a tent on wasteland outside of Hyderabad City, she realises that her family have nothing at all.

Maybe Gulshad will become a doctor, but this is Pakistan, a country which boasts the highest childhood illiteracy rates in the world; a country which has been unable to put a roof over her head.

The odds are against her, but maybe, even in Pakistan, there can be such a thing as a happy ending.