Snakes without ladders

LAST week, the villagers of Pandhi Khan Khoso and Sakhi Humza Khoso were told that they should return to their villages. The water, they were told, had been drained. Their homes were now ‘safe’. The women and children began to stream back. Then, the snakebites began.

Five-year-old Mohsin died because a snake hidden in the dark damp of what used to be the family home bit him. Then 25-year-old Naseeban, a mother of two, was also bitten by a snake. The villagers tried to take her to the hospital but the road was still underwater. She died.

Around the same time, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec), under the chairmanship of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, was meeting in faraway Islamabad. Projects worth Rs600 billion — to be gleaned from various international donors — were approved. Rs31.8bn were apportioned for a Sialkot substation project; another Rs17bn was sanctioned for augmenting the power capacity at Vehari. Punjab, it appears, has really been suffering from a lack of power.

To help agriculture in Punjab, the government decided to allocate Rs74bn to improve community-based water conveyance. The people of KP have been suffering from water issues too. A whopping Rs189bn was apportioned for the Chashma Right Bank Canal Project. Balochistan will get an earth-filled dam at Jhal Magsi that will reportedly assist in flood mitigation efforts.

Ecnec’s decisions indicated that the government’s development spending priorities hardly include Sindh. Many activists, academics and health workers who have been working in Sindh — arguably, the province worst affected by the catastrophic floods — are aghast. While the government has been busy making plans for what the other provinces need, people in Sindh continue to face the hellscape that is the aftermath of the floods.

In speaking to a variety of people, from small farmers whose crop has been destroyed to doctors like Dr Meher Zaidi who has been carrying out a heroic effort to help women facing horrific conditions, everyone has been stunned.

Dignitaries have come and gone, but the floodwaters, the snakes, the illnesses, the absolute desperation have stayed.

According to Dr Zaidi, the situation is beyond disastrous. Not only are women and children threatened by snakes, which have wildly proliferated in the flood-affected areas, but water-borne disease and pregnancy complications too are causing preventable deaths. It seems that in the absence of INGOs and generally low-scale activity on the part of local NGOs, very little has been done or achieved. There are few tent cities which can safely house women and children who have been internally displaced. Nor are there secure temporary birthing shelters for pregnant women to safely give birth and protect themselves and their newborns from infection.

All the plans that were developed after the 2010 floods to prevent ghastly and grotesque situations like these have been ignored and thrown in the dustbin. Where are the tents, the malaria pills and the plans?

Then there are the villages which still have standing water. In Thari Mirwah in District Khairpur, reportedly thousands of residents and commuters have remained stuck because of the standing floodwater. According to area residents, no elected officials, no authorities have been visible to even appeal to for help.

The people have been making videos of the situation and putting them up on Twitter in the hope that someone will take notice. At this point, any help from anyone would be welcome.

A recent video showed that floodwaters have yet to recede and the government has not helped. In Johi in Dadu district, residents must travel eight kilometres by boat, and get fleeced in the process, to get to dry land. The clip showed that the Government Degree College was still underwater; the surviving livestock was starving and crops had been decimated. Men and women have camped on the sides of streets with no shelter other than pieces of cloth or plastic. It is unknown whether anyone has helped them.

In one video, a farmer in Sindh addresses the army chief, even as he uses mud to try and build a house. He says he had heard him speak at a press conference in Dadu right after the floods and pledge new homes for those who had lost theirs in the floods. The farmer wanted to ask him directly about the promise. “In one month, winter will be here, will we get the homes promised to us?”

This same district was also visited by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif. According to the farmer, when an old woman accosted the prime minister and said her home was gone and her children were dying of malaria, he placed his hand on her head and said, “Mashallah”.

Dignitaries have come and gone, but the floodwaters, the snakes, the water-borne and mosquito-borne illnesses, the absolute desperation have all stayed. After the fervour of the initial weeks, the donations are also trickling to a close. And yet it appears, it is just those small donations, given by those Pakistanis who still have a heart, that have the possibility to save even a few of the people whose lives are ebbing away with each passing day.

In one telephone call, a farmer from Dadu begged for something, even sawdust, to feed the few animals he still had left. “If they live, we live,” he said.

Perhaps this story of his plight can help renew the effort to rescue the Pakistanis who have been condemned to neglect and derision by those whose job it is to help.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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