Category Archives: Natural Disasters

Cashing in on the floods

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHEN natural disaster strikes, it can affect the rich and the poor, but not alike. Calamities such as floods and earthquakes hit the poor harder.

Being the children of lesser gods, the poor are more vulnerable. As such they need more help and for them recovery becomes a massive challenge.

In times of such crises, the temptation to cash in on their misery and play politics becomes irresistible for the rich and the powerful who have traditionally prospered from this inequitable equation.

This is being amply demonstrated in the testing times that Pakistan is currently going through, when floods are wreaking havoc on people who have already fallen victim to other tragedies that were essentially man-made. Many had suffered at the hands of terrorists. Others had seen dislocation and violence caused by the war that terrorism had invited. There were many more whose hardships were compounded by a dysfunctional and apathetic government not famous for its integrity.

Hence when the rains described by the Met Office as “once in a century” descended on the country, the devastation caused was stupendous. One should be wary of giving figures because the range of the numbers being quoted in the media and by leaders is mind-boggling. We are told that over 1,600 people have drowned, 13 million have been displaced, 252,000 homes have been washed away and infrastructure in large areas has been totally destroyed. The National Disaster Management Authority’s website gives the update for Aug 8 as 1,203 deaths, 1,317 injured and 288,170 houses damaged. The country was in a state of shock — or should have been — given the scale of the destruction.

Natural calamities are unavoidable. But their impact can be minimised by careful and shrewd planning, and effective and prompt disaster management. Accurate forecasting and early warning, where possible, also reduce damage. In this context, we do not know how unpredictable the deluge really was and whether the loss of life could have been lower.

What was painful was the experience of watching different sectors of society vying to politicise the crisis to their own advantage. The reaction of different people spoke volumes for their perception of the crisis. The prime minister described the floods as the “worst in Pakistan’s history” and went on to launch a flood relief fund while also making an appeal for international humanitarian assistance. Many countries were quick to respond — the US pledged $35m and Britain £15m.

True, the enormity of the damage called for intensive official intervention and the government’s resources are limited. But its failure to make even a token gesture of demonstrating a spirit of self-reliance evoked cynicism. One did not hear of Islamabad tightening its belt to generate funds for flood relief. In fact, President Zardari’s visit to France and Britain was even embarrassing because it displayed brazen insensitivity at a time when he should have been with his people. Besides, can one justify appeals for donations when the head of a government is ostensibly on a spending spree? The president tried to justify his visit in the context of the flood by saying that it helped him raise donations.

But was it just a coincidence that only a day before, his son Bilawal had launched a fund-raising drive, and the UK’s Charity Commission, the independent charity regulator, issued a warning titled “Be aware of possible Pakistan appeal scams”. It warned the public against “criminals who try to take advantage of the public’s generosity” through fictitious appeals.

The commission stated “the public’s support is crucial to enable charities to deliver desperately needed aid to Pakistan but it is vital that donations go to a genuine charity so that they reach those in need”. Pakistani expatriates are usually known to donate generously whenever natural disaster strikes.

While political elements exploited the situation, the religious extremists were not to be left behind. Before the floods, the Taliban had no qualms about inflicting their brand of violence on innocent people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They had also been hand in glove with the timber mafia in denuding forested regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Deforestation, it is admitted, has exacerbated the tempo of the flood.

Adopting a carrot and stick strategy, a spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan announced at a time when the flood was at its peak that his organisation was suspending attacks in the flood-hit areas of the country. Of course the temporary respite never came. The day following this announcement the chief of the Frontier Constabulary was killed by a teenaged suicide bomber in Peshawar.

The Taliban saw the floods as an occasion to preach their own ideological doctrines and seize upon the people’s misery to bring them to heel. A purported representative of the Taliban, as quoted by Channel 4 news, claimed that the flood was an opportunity for the people “to seek forgiveness” and “pledge support to the Mujahideen and Islam”. According to him the calamity was a punishment inflicted on the people who had “desecrated Sharia and insulted the Mujahideen and sought help from the infidels”.

After pointing out the flawed character of the population, the militants could not let go of this chance to impress on the people their “humanitarian spirit”. The religious parties went into action to set up relief camps for the flood victims in a show of sympathy for them.

In the lead was the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation — relief wing of the Jamaatud Dawa thought to be the public face of the Lashkar-i-Taiba which has been accused of masterminding the Mumbai attacks in 2008. With the government and the army’s rescue operations failing to neutralise the impact of the fury of the rivers, the Islamist charities stood a good chance of winning the public’s heart.

We will have to wait and see who wins in this strange battle for hearts and minds that is shaping up in Pakistan.

Ecological disasters

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

BP (or Beyond Petroleum as British Petroleum branded itself after its merger with Amoco in 2000) has been in the news practically every day in the British and American media since April when its Deep-water Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 people.

Since then a massive amount of oil is being spilled into the sea making it one of the worst ecological disasters of its kind in the world.
Continue reading Ecological disasters

Defeating Food Price Inflation: A Kitchen Garden in Every Home

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: The WIP

Pakistan has been hit by severe food price inflation – the worst in its 61-year history. The prices of many basic food items have more than doubled in the last year and poor families are now spending two thirds to three quarters of their monthly income on their meals alone.

• As food prices rise in Pakistan, some are turning to home gardens to put food on the table. Photograph courtesy of OPP-RTI. •

Continue reading Defeating Food Price Inflation: A Kitchen Garden in Every Home

Quake spending needs transparency

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHEN the devastating earthquake of October 8, 2005, struck Azad Kashmir and parts of the NWFP, nearly 73,000 lives were lost, 70,000 people were seriously injured and 2.8 million were made homeless. The magnitude of the tragedy was enormous and Pakistanis as well as others from all over the world responded by sending in donations in cash and kind.

Many volunteered their time and services to help the victims. The government of Pakistan rose to the occasion to extend a helping hand.

It set up the Federal Relief Commission headed by a relief commissioner with the responsibility of “overseeing relief efforts targeting shelter, food, clean water and immediate medical care” as stated by the government.
Continue reading Quake spending needs transparency

The healing touch

By Zubeida Mustafa

Since October 8 when the killer earthquake hit Azad Kashmir and northern Pakistan, the media has been full of images related to the tragedy. They tell a bigger story than a thousand written or spoken words. There are two pictures which are striking for their extraordinary touch of humanism. They are symbolic of what the human touch means to a person — young or old, man, woman or child.

One picture which was published a few days after the earthquake shows an army officer holding up with great affection a rescued infant who smiles warmly at his benefactor. Another picture which appeared more recently shows Queen Rania of Jordan shaking hands with an earthquake survivor in a hospital. Both are smiling. That is the magic of the human touch.

Medical science has now conclusively proved that when people shake hands or hug each other — that is, when they establish physical contact — it makes them feel good. Our grandmothers have known for a long time, even before the obstetricians and paediatricians said it, that cuddling a baby is absolutely essential for his emotional, physical and mental development. Conversely, a child who was not held and hugged in infancy very often suffers from psychological/emotional problems.

And if someone is feeling unwell, under stress or down in the dumps, a hug can work wonders. Try it and see. The principal of a private nursing college in Karachi, the only PhD in nursing in Pakistan, once recalled that when she was under training, the trainee nurses were instructed to always touch their patients gently on the forehead when asking them how they were feeling. She regretted that this very important rule was not strictly observed any more.

Not surprising then that it was a woman from Jordan who came all the way to Pakistan to touch an injured woman and bring a smile to her face. Did you notice that all our leaders who visited the injured in hospitals or went to console the survivors and never missed a photo op with them, were hardly ever seen extending a hand to give someone a reassuring pat or hug a traumatized person or cuddle a child in a state of shock. There were pictures of bigwigs standing next to the hospital bed looking at the earthquake victim or talking to the doctor in attendance. Three pictures have now appeared which can be described as exceptions. They are of the president, the prime minister and the first lady with children being held by them. That is encouraging. But don’t forget that the adults need emotional support, too.

Remember Princess Diana’s visit to Lahore and how she held the cancer-stricken children close to her? These gestures endeared her to the public simply because her ways had a healing effect on the ill children and brought a smile to their faces.

Touch is such an important element in human interaction that Virginia Satir, an eminent social scientist, remarked, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

Isn’t it time we loosened up a bit? We don’t like to touch a stranger to comfort him if he is in distress. When it comes to smiling, we don’t even do that often enough. And for a stranger we happen to be face to face with, we reserve our grimmest expression. Perhaps each of us is too private a person and is afraid of connecting with others we do not know. Or has it something to do with the stratified society we live in?

But kind words are very often not enough. As some health workers from the Red Cross who worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Rita recall how people trying to be brave would invariably say, “Fine, thank you. The family is fine, too,” when asked how they were. But then the health worker would reach out and pat them on the shoulder, they would break down. They were the ones who needed help. They were invited to come and talk about their problems which were many. A typical scene would be that of a health nurse putting her arm around a woman and leading her to a quiet spot where they talked as the nurse held the woman’s hand. “They need to talk. They need someone to lean on for a little bit,” observes one mental health worker. Let us also provide that supportive hand and the shoulder to lean on for the earthquake survivors.n

Source: Dawn

When disaster struck

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHAT lessons did Saturday’s earthquake in the north of the country carry for us? In the initial shocking days there was not much to learn and much more to mourn. There were moments of hope as well when the efforts of the rescue teams were rewarded and a survivor was pulled out — like the smiling infant whose picture was splashed across newspapers all over the country.
Continue reading When disaster struck