Asian Development Bank reports that rapid increase in food prices will push 3.5 million more into extreme poverty
In early September, the District of Jacobabad was struck with record-breaking monsoon rains exceeding 305mm. This in a place where the September average is around 20mm. Additionally, two waves of hill torrents, one from the Suleiman Mountains and the other due to breaches in the SimNala, flooded the entire district.
On a visit to the worst affected areas of Jacobabad last week, I thought that flood water would have drained or seeped away by now. My assumption was proven wrong upon reaching the union council of Ahmedpur, half an hour’s drive from Jacobabad city.
A vast expanse of standing water touched the horizon. Three to four feet of this putrid water has drowned the only road in this rural hinterland, with hundred of farms inundated. The only villages saved from the floods were luckily present on higher grounds. Now, they have become island villages, surrounded all on four sides by flood water.
The only means of reaching these island villages is either on foot, walking several kilometres through the putrid water, or using motorboats run by the World Food Program (WFP) to deliver food. I accompanied a team of NGO workers to several island villages, where they distributed nutritious food rations including packets of wheat, pulses, oil, salt and high energy biscuits for children.
There was rubble, broken donkey carts and dead cattle visible in the water. The villages are made up of mud plaster houses with cattle roaming around muddy paths and stagnant pools of water. Fearing more rains and floods, clothes and other household goods are still lying around in bundles. Farming is the primary means of livelihood for these people. Since the floods, men are forced to work as casual labourers in the city, barely earning enough to feed their children. The staple diet of vegetables, lentils, bread and rice is reduced to simply tea and chapatti, with some lucky few having vegetable curry once a day – one bowl shared between five to six family members.
A handful of international and local NGOs are providing immediate relief services to the affected population. Temporary tent schools have been set up while distribution of shelter items and food rations and the frequent visit of health teams is ongoing. However, poor infrastructure and lack of planning means there is nowhere for the standing water to go and locals fear that it would take nearly five months for the water to dissipate.
Visiting these island villages reminded me of the islands where I have lived my entire life in Pakistan. These are the ‘islands of prosperity’, namely the urban centers of Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Faisalabad and others, driving the country’s economy and housing nearly half of the total population (depending on one’s definition of urban).
Though surrounded by a sea of depravity, these islands of prosperity fuel hope and optimism in the country’s future. They continue to provide opportunities to excel in the corporate sector, media, services and trade, entrepreneurial ventures, academia and the government. New businesses and entertainment venues are sprouting and global interconnectedness is fulfilling the increasing demand of consumer products by the emerging middle class.
But looking beyond this veneer of hope, the island villages of Jacobabad and the urban islands of prosperity are quite similar. The majority of latter islanders – the countless numbers of urban poor, low-income workers and daily wage slaves – fare no better than deprived villagers in Jacobabad’s islands. In many cases, villager islanders live in more secure environments than residents of urban Pakistan threatened by petty criminals, armed political groups, terrorists and ethno-religious violence. There is an equal lack of basic facilities in both islands including food, education, health care, housing, gas, and electricity. There is also an equal divide of social classes: the affluent living in comfortable hamlets barely affected by everyday crises, the salaried drudge along trying to make ends meet and those at the bottom surviving on the bare minimum.
With the passage of time, conditions in both islands are further aggravating. Pakistan already has 22% of the population living below the poverty line (earning below $1.25 a day). Inflation, negligence towards agricultural development and recurrent floods have made life harder for village islanders. Statistics show that 80% of the country’s poor live in rural areas with unequal land ownership, lack of education, health services, large family sizes and environmental degradation stifling any steps for development. The WFP reported nearly 50% of the total population, particularly in rural areas, as food insecure. The number is thought to have increased due to the annual floods. The worsening situation is evident when one refers to the Asian Development Bank report stating that rapid increase in food prices will push 3.5 million more into extreme poverty.
Meanwhile, economic mismanagement, corruption and misplaced national priorities are all responsible for deteriorating conditions in the islands of prosperity. At least one in every three city dwellers in Pakistan lives in a slum while overcrowding is the norm in schools, colleges, hospitals and other services. Less than 1% of urban wastewater is treated and less than 50% of solid urban waste is collected. Moreover, the inability of governments to keep pace with the increase in demand of essential needs such as electricity and gas has hurt both islanders, and reduced their trust in government as well.
Rather than suggesting remedies, it is best to ask pertinent questions that seek to understand underlying causes for such islands in Pakistan. Considering successive annual floods, are there plans to construct or improve drainage systems and elevated roads? Have we planned relocation of communities away from flood-prone areas? What about investment in disaster-mitigating infrastructure?
For the islands of prosperity, are there long-term sustainable urban development policies? Are the Master Plans of major cities relevant and updated? How will we cater to the needs of people in Karachi and Lahore, with populations of 12 and 6 million respectively and increasing at a rate of 3% per annum?
The issues are daunting and the challenges seem insurmountable. Yet after visiting island villages in Jacobabad and retuning to the capital of all islands of prosperity in Pakistan, I am not disheartened or buoyant about the future. I remain as ambivalent as my fellow countrymen, an equal participant in the prevailing see-saw of optimism and despondency. Excited at the prospects of a new political force aiming to transform the nation but also thinking of fleeing abroad witnessing the recent attack on an innocent school girl in Swat. Believing that God will not abandon his pious followers but also worried that the nation’s future lies in a horrid abyss.
It reminds me of Charles Dickens opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of freedom, it was the age of slavery…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…"