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September 22, 2010 / Rehman Azhar

The Real Challenge

An ariel view of the town Kot Addu in South Punjab when it was hit by the floodwaters.

I recently traveled to Kot Addu, one of the worst areas affected by the floods in Pakistan. I couldn’t catch any flight, so traveled by car that in a way told me lots of things that I haven’t read in papers or seen on TV. Hitherto I just knew the facts and figures about the disaster that has occurred. The problem with the facts and figures is that they are emotionless. Sometimes in a far off land, one is not able to relate to the situation or what actually happened there. It is only when you see it with your own eyes, you realize the real side of the story. Seeing is believing and I could still see water on both sides of the road. Still and standing water! It looked peaceful and one can be skeptical of its capacity to devastate. But in it were rotten crops, fallen trees, bricks and rubble all along the way- immersed in water. In still and silent water! That had the stillness and silence of death.

One thing was satisfying for me. People are being taken care of. I saw trucks loaded of ration supplies and shelters on their way to different areas. There are camps already being run by different organizations mostly local and foreign NGOs and our government. It was an exhilarating feeling- just to know that how my own countrymen and foreigners have come forward to help these people. At the same time, I was afraid too.  When so much is being done, what need is there to be afraid?, I ask. I am afraid of the time when after few months has passed and all these cameras and campaigns would wither away. Foreign donors will have other calamities to look after. Media will have a different story for its papers and screens (even our own national media- after all Pakistan is such a happening country). What would happen then? Has anyone thought of the time?

A picture taken during my visit to Kot Addu. Floodwaters still hold ground in the inundated fields, making the land uncultivable for the coming crop season.

My contention here; agriculture has been the livelihood of areas especially n South Punjab. The land has been famous for growing cotton, sugarcane, wheat and corn. On both sides of the road that rips through these plains and towns of South Punjab, I could witness standing crops of corn and cotton rotting in standing water. Some fields have been completely washed away leaving just the dykes or saline soil as the water drains. An estimate tells that crops on 2,231,378 hectares have been completely destroyed in Pakistan that amounts to 1/3rd of the total cultivable land. South Punjab suffered the worst onslaught of the floods with standing crops washed away and water still holding ground. This standing water won’t go easily since nothing is being done for the drainage. Even when the water would go, there will be the problem of salinity for the vast swathes of land that might make it uncultivable for another crop season. In short, we are missing a whole food cycle and it might take us a year to see any crop standing in those plains. Anyone who has some understanding of how important any crop cycle is for a small farmer would know that it is a complete disaster for the household economy. One crop destroyed pushes a farmer to survive only on debt or borrowed money and seed from the market. Here we are talking about missing two or three crop seasons at least. Is anyone thinking about it? Has authorities decided on any policy to make that land cultivable as soon as possible so that the farmer could start working on the next crop possible? Who will be providing for the seeds to cultivate these crops? If nothing is being done then do we have the resources to feed 20 million of the population for the coming year and a half? What will happen to all those who relied on grains from these crops for their livelihood and bread for the house? A country that already faced sugar and flour crisis in recent years will be threatened again with a food crisis- a bigger one. The prices will go up obviously for the rest of the country as well because either we will have a shortage or we might have to import.

The car sped on that outworn road through the plains where water still held ground. I closed my eyes and perhaps didn’t want to think- just like my government.

September 16, 2010 / Rehman Azhar

Photoblog-Victims, Devastation, Rehabilitation and Fears

South Punjab has been one of the worst areas affected by the floodwaters in Pakistan. It is the worst flooding in Pakistan’s history caused by the heavy monsoon pouring in the months of July and August. With about one fifth of the whole country is virtually under water with severe threats to vital national interests. The floods have submerged about 17 million acres of nation’s most fertile croplands, where farming is the mainstay of economy. The waters have also killed more than 200,000 head of livestock, and washed away large quantities of stored commodities that feed millions throughout the year. As the floodwater level comes down and people start returning to their lands, starts the crucial phase and the real challenge of feeding the people, building the infrastructure again and making the land cultivable. This area is just one of the examples of how difficult the task can be.

In Muzzaffargarh, South Punjab people line up to receive ration and aid in a camp. In this district and adjoining areas around 2 million people have been affected by the floods, most of them forced to live in these camps, still waiting to return to their homes. They have to rely on rations being distributed by charity organizations for their daily meals and shelter.

Dr. Wasim Hussain, District Emergency Officer and in charge of the model camp established in union council Adda Lakhi, sweats as he tells about the difficulties of running the camp. His team has been working to provide shelter and food to the people displaced by the floods in South Punjab. His greatest fear is that who would provide resources to feed the people in these camps in the longer run who have nothing left of their livelihoods and will take a long time to build their homes or cultivate their lands again.

A tent erected by a family where once their house stood in Gujrat, a town near Multan where people are returning to their homes after the floodwater is gone. They are still living in tents with no resources to build their houses again. 1,894,530 households have been destroyed with families rendered homeless.

Kot Addu, a town in South Punjab where floodwater destroyed the standing crops of wheat, cotton and sugarcane. The water still holds ground making the land uncultivable for the coming season. 4,460,636 acres of agricultural land has been affected by the floods, which is 1/3rd of the total land used for crop growing threatening Pakistan with a food crises in coming days.

Volunteers from Turkish Red Crescent assemble prefabricated houses with the help of locals in Muzaffargarh district. Along with USAID, UN, DFID (UK) and Red Cross, Turkish Red Crescent has been at the forefront in helping the flood-stricken people. 61 countries and six multilateral institutions have committed from for flood relief. The majority of this aid, almost 62 per cent, comes from the top five donors Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the Netherlands.

The sun sets in Kot Addu in South Punjab, which is one of the worst areas affected by the floods. Estimates tell that the floods affected 82 districts of Pakistan with 3572 villages destroyed. Once where housing structures and crops stood, now the landscape is changed altogether.

August 25, 2010 / Rehman Azhar

Obituary – Faisal Khan

Faisal Khan- You will be missed

I was watching news and there appeared randomly a ticker line that a cameraman of a private TV channel has passed away in an accident near Mall Road, Lahore. The news line said his name was Faisal Khan. Faisal Khan who? ‘I guess I don’t know anyone with that name’, I said to myself. That was my first reaction. After that I did not bother myself much finding out who was Faisal Khan and what happened to him. Next morning I saw couple of status updates on facebook from my colleagues and the name Faisal Khan was there too. A feeling of presentiment started to grow that he was someone I knew. Worst thing about such apprehensions is that they just don’t turn out to be an apprehension. That’s exactly what happened. It was the Faisal Khan but we knew him by the name of Chaand.

Who was Faisal Khan and how I knew him?

Faisal Khan was working as a cameraman with Geo Television Lahore. He joined Geo Television Network as a cameraman with its project Geo English to which I was a part too. I was covering sports at that time and that is when I met Faisal Khan aka Chaand for the first time. I had heard few things about him even before I interacted with him. He was a laughing stock for most of the people in the field. Most of his colleagues were not really friends with him. I have always been skeptical of people and this attitude has also prevailed ever since I started working for media. People are always bull shitting around and you don’t want to believe them no matter what they say. Despite everything that I heard about him, I took him out on few assignments with me. He was a lively person and full of energy. I told him what people said about him. He would disregard all that cheerfully saying it was all crap. He always considered sports assignments free of hassle and that’s why always wanted to go with me. And I liked him too. We became a team. He was deputed for sports and was always with me. I hated doing few things and he knew about all that. He would do such chores for me. There were times when I wanted to sneak out from the coverage and he would always cover for me. He told me how to adjust funds that I used to get for the coverage. I was new to media – too bad with handling things and people around me and he was teaching me tricks of trade. He used to be annoying sometimes with his silly jokes that I use to hear again and again. He won’t remember how many times he had told me the same joke. He would always ask me about the girls in my life or if I am interested in someone in channel or field and I never told him anything. Failing to get something out of me, he would start with his own stories about his affairs. It was his problem. He always had stories- about channel, about reporters, about other cameramen, about his daughters, about his murdered brother, about girls and about his own family. He would not let a moment pass without conversation. I used to get irritated at times but then he was a source of information for me. I never wanted to lose him, as any good reporter would do.

What happened to him?

On the night of 23rd of August, he had an accident on his way back home from office. His bike collided with a donkey cart with iron rods in it. He probably died on spot. But he was taken to services hospital where doctors pronounced him dead. The instant I heard about his death, the only flashback I had was the way he would show me the pictures of his daughters. He had two very cute daughters. He won’t miss their calls and talk to them even during press conferences- something that really pissed me off. Everyday he used to show me their pictures taken on his cell phone and set as wallpaper. I wondered how the news must have gone down with them.

Why should we care?

I had not talked to him in ages. Last time I heard from him was a call six months back. I missed his call but then called back. He started off with his typical rant that ever since I have started coming on screen as an anchor, I have forgotten about him. And I came up with the usual excuse that it is just that I am too busy with things around. I realize one thing now. That’s our problem. We are always too busy with things around. We care less for the things that are not around us. Faisal Khan became such a thing in my life. Probably he told me one more thing. Start caring for those things too that were around once.

August 14, 2010 / Rehman Azhar

Who Threw the Shoe at Zardari?

Pakistanis in Birmingham protesting against President Asif Ali Zardari

President Zardari made the most disastrous foreign trip by any Pakistani head of state. For him it just came at a wrong time and wrong place- that’s Britain. For his opposition it was the right time and the right place. For most analysts in politics-this trip from public relations to foreign policy-was not worth making.  Zardari supporters considered his address in Brimingham to be the climax of this tour and it actually turned out to be- but for the wrong reasons.  There was no historic entry of Bilawal Bhutto into the arena of real politik- heir to the throne of Bhutto legacy. Neither there was any momentous speech by Zardari that aroused Pakistanis to help their brethren back home devastated by flood. Nor it was the crowd cheering for him or the bunch of people chanting slogans against him outside the hall. It was because of a shoe-actually a pair as claimed- thrown at President of Pakistan that made the headlines. Where did that come from? It was the most awkward and unexpected anti-climax to Mr. Zardari’s trip.

Should we believe Zardari’s spokeperson?

Zardari supporters still dispute the fact that the shoe was thrown at the President. Ministers and spokesperson for the President have negated the incidents altogether. They said nothing of the sort has happened and it is sheer propaganda by a section of our media. But what about the foreign media present there that also reported the incident?  These spokespersons and ministers have not come clean most of the times. Judges restoration, NRO cases against President, tussle with Punjab Government and more recently extension of Army chief are a few issues to quote when they have not been telling all. Why believe them now?

Should we have faith in Geo Television?

Daggers Drawn- Asif Ali Zardari and Geo

Ah its media versus government again. But hold on! Is it media versus government or one channel versus government? Geo Television or Jung Group has lived up to its expectations once again. The whole saga has been more about Jung group and Asif Zardari rather than the shoe, rally or the president’s tour in the first place. According to the group, they have taken a stance for freedom of media and press. They said they would withstand this tyranny of government. Employees and anchors are wearing black armbands and they have made all press bodies come out in support for them. Does it give you a feeling of déjà vu or flashback? I am certainly getting such vibes. The same thing happened to Jung paper when Nawaz Sharif was in power. More recently the channel was closed down when Musharraf held the reigns. And who can forget that it was the same channel that claimed that an airplane has landed at Islamabad airport to take President Musharraf to some distant land (which was surely not the case). And now they have a standoff with Zardari. Yet again! Why does this always happen to Geo? That’s another question.

Shoe throwing episode was not something new to be excited about. Leaders like India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo has faced it already. And who can forget George Bush from whom it all started. May be our president is another name in the infamous list. It is separate question whether they deserve it or not and perhaps a less important one. Pakistan now faces the daunting task of rebuilding the infrastructure after the devastation caused by the floods. More than 15 million have been affected. Cities have lost schools, hospitals, bridges and roads. United Nations has requested $460 m from international donors. At this stage should we be concerned that who threw a shoe in that rally? Should we be troubled that some cable operators are not airing a channel? Should we care about the usual critical statements by the opposition and ready-made responses by the ministers?

Is this shoe throwing episode and its coverage relevant at this time? That’s the biggest question of all.

August 4, 2010 / Rehman Azhar

Next Phase of Devastation

Pakistani children sit on a bed to eat their food, in a flood hit area of Qasim Bella, on the outskirts of Multan, Pakistan. Hundreds of villages and towns were under several feet of water. (AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)

What is the extent of devastation?

Floodwater in Pakistan is still causing havoc. Peak of flowing water is ranging from 950,000 cusecs to 1,050,000 cusecs at different spots now as it passes through provinces of Sindh and Punjab. It has been a month of torrential rains in Pakistan and the resulting flood is being considered the worst in Pakistan’s history.  It is very difficult to assess the extent of devastation right now. We can only talk about the number of people killed or rendered homeless; leave aside the damage to the infrastructure. UN reports have suggested that nearly 1000 villages have been affected and some 15000 houses have been destroyed. The death toll has already crossed 1400. There is no compensation for the loss of human lives but when it comes to Pakistan there is neither for infrastructure. Floodwater inundated those areas and washed away bridges, schools and hospital buildings, roads and electricity installations. Worst affected is the mainstay of the population i.e. agriculture. In most of the flooded areas, people rely on agriculture for their living: growing small crops and breeding cattle. Lets get things not complicated by talking about macroeconomics here. About the individuals or families – crops have been destroyed while the cattle have been killed, people rendered homeless and they have nowhere to go now. This is the story of common man affected by the flood.

How government has dealt with the situation so far?

Government says it is doing whatever it can. As it always happens in Pakistan, army was called in for support even after this natural catastrophe.  Spokesperson for the army says that they are using all resources they have for the evacuation of the people from affected areas. Government is vying to provide people support in camps set up for the affected people. Although media reports suggest that people are angry with the government who has been under criticism for its lack of preparedness and response to the situation. It is to be remembered that Pakistan is a third world country where little attention is paid to vigilance against possible natural catastrophe. Even if there were warnings of such rains, a government and military fighting the inevitable war against terror had already their hands full.

What is the nature of challenge?

The United Nations has estimated that more than one million people are in need of emergency aid. It has warned of serious food shortages following the loss of farm produce in the floods. The World Food Program has estimated that 1.8 million people will need to be fed over the next month. The challenge is not just to feed these people. More flooding and rains that are predicted in next few days can make situation worse by prompting the possible spread of diseases. In such times, people tend to look for aid from wherever it comes. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, government closed down some camps being run by the banned outfits. But at the same time, government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has also frozen all developmental work that is going on in the province. Areas that are badly affected by the floods included Swat Valley as well, which was cleared by the army after a military operation in 2009 and government is now trying to rebuild it. These efforts for reconstruction are surely to get affected and might provide chances for resurgence of militancy in the wake of chaotic situation. Supply to the NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan has also been affected since routes go through the areas flooded by the rains.

Some support has come due to the news about floods making headlines in international media. Red Cross, UN and its agencies are already busy doing their work in areas affected. International aid has been promised by United States, UK, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Japan, but over all the response has been lukewarm and there is still lot to be done.

What’s next?

Fresh flood warnings were issued on Tuesday for Sindh, Punjab and Balouchistan that has also resulted in mass exodus of the people from these areas – another challenge for the authorities. Spread of diseases or an outbreak of an epidemic is not being ruled out, as there will be more rains. People who are homeless are either stationed with their relatives or in camps set up by the government. The damage to the infrastructure seems irreparable. In a country where people are normally struggling for amenities might find themselves deprived of all that for a long time. It will take a lot of time and resources building those bridges, hospitals, schools, roads, and electricity installations again. Population that relied on agriculture and cattle for living have now nothing to feed them on except government aid. A government who is not doing so well with the finances seems to be in need to extra wads of cash to deal with this extra ordinary situation. The floodwater will come down in days to come and the rains will stop as well. What would happen then? That’s the question and that’s when the next phase of devastation starts.