By Zubeida Mustafa
IT was President John F. Kennedy who exhorted Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you…..but what you can do for your country”. This ‘do for your country’ spirit is very much in evidence in Pakistan today, especially among the generation that got the best from it in its youth. It is heart-warming to see that many Pakistanis are now willing to repay the debt they feel they owe their people. And they are doing it abundantly.
Recently, I received an email from Saquib Hameed, the honorary vice chairman and CEO of the Layton Rahmatullah Benevolent Trust (LRBT) that runs its eye hospitals all over the country and is rendering excellent and free service to those suffering from eye diseases. Saquib was my contemporary at the University of Karachi. He described his own service at the LRBT as a “payback” after retirement.
There are others who have not yet retired but are giving back to the country what they feel they owe to their motherland. Dr Azhar Salahuddin, an ophthalmologist working in the US, has been visiting Karachi for a week or so every year since 2006 to perform eye surgeries at the LRBT hospital in Korangi. He partners with a group called SEE International in the US which gives him enough supplies for 100 cataract surgeries which he brings with him.
Apart from performing a few cataract surgeries and cornea transplants, he also teaches new techniques to the local doctors. The supplies that are not used up are donated to LRBT. Dr Salahuddin is in the process of setting up an eye bank in Pakistan. His services are pro bono.
During the August floods, the financial contributions from Pakistani expatriates were phenomenal. No figures are available and it is unlikely they ever will be. Most of these donations came through private channels and were given to trusted NGOs and some charities set up spontaneously and informally to help provide relief to flood victims.
A Rotarian who sent out an appeal for funds for flood relief managed to raise a big sum of which 63 per cent came from abroad. In Toronto a Pakistani raised $420,000 from one fund-raiser. The migrants have been selflessly generous and do not expect any rewards in return as a few high-profile Pakistanis have in the past. The latter became ministers — returning home to make hay while the sun shone.
Another response to the floods came from a friend Azhar Fasih in Oaksville, Ontario (Canada) who is an engineer (having graduated from the NED in 1967 and completing a Masters in engineering from Cornell). He works for a Canadian company and has been posted in Argentina, Poland and China. Azhar was very concerned about Pakistan, as I have found most expatriates to be. He wanted to know what he and his friends could do to help the country. They had all donated hefty sums for flood relief.Azhar, along with his fellow NEDians, would like to offer his expertise as his namesake, the ophthalmologist, is doing.
I asked him what kind of services he envisaged to help Pakistan in these trying times when a large area of the country lies in ruins with 20 million people affected. Being an engineer his focus is understandably on reconstruction. But he wants to go beyond the simple act of rebuilding all the structures which he believes may face the fury of the floods in a few years again.
As pointed out by the World Meteorological Organisation, Pakistan’s floods fit international scientists’ projections of more frequent and more intense extreme weather events due to global warming.
The ecological damage has been so severe, especially deforestation, that even unusually heavy rainfall can lead to flooding. There are few trees and plantations left in the mountainous areas to bind the soil and serve as a barrier to the torrential flow of rainwater.
Azhar describes the 2010 floods as a disaster as well as a “wake-up call” for future calamities. He emphasises the important of undertaking forestation on a large and concerted scale to pre-empt the devastation wrought by floods in future,
Azhar speaks of using the expertise of engineers for designing projects such as reservoirs, bridges, roads and houses designed to withstand the pressure of floodwater and also solar panels for heating water and homes in winter as a form of conserving electricity. barani
These are very feasible and affordable propositions. Millions of cusecs of water flowed into the Arabian Sea through the Indus River system during the floods. But with the dry season there is talk of water shortage given the absence of storage capacity.Azhar speaks of rain-filled reservoirs that have been built in some areas with “engineered earth” with an impermeable liner, mainly clay, to prevent seepage. I wonder if such reservoirs can’t be built to store the excess water in the rivers during rainy season. They would expand the irrigation network and boost agriculture. Why not plan these reservoirs in the reconstruction phase?
He is bubbling with ideas as he has seen many such projects in China where he lived for five years. I find it intriguing that the government in Islamabad should be eager to buy nuclear plants from China but not acquire something simpler for the power sector such as solar panels, which would help conserve trees that are used up as firewood for heating.
Similarly the bridges that have been washed away by the floods, Azhar points out, were too low and close to the riverbed. Their spans were not wide enough. They must be redesigned keeping the floods in view. Pakistani bridge engineers in North America could provide this expertise.
The need is to tap into this huge reserve of goodwill that Pakistani expatriates have for the country. Some coordination and organisation is needed. It would be so satisfying to see Pakistanis help out their less fortunate brethren in the reconstruction task on a self-help basis rather than our leaders going round the globe with a begging bowl in hand.