Water-Borne Misery: Pakistan in Peril

September 02, 2010
Harold Bergsma

The Indus is the heart and arteries of ancient Indian civilizations; its shores and settlements have existed into ancient history. Alexander the Great's troops stopped here, stayed here long enough to bring not only their military might but their genetic force. Red haired children with blue eyes are numerous, and the boat men living on their house boats to this day are not Muslim but serve a pantheon of deities which have evolved over time to suit the beliefs and comfort zones of a faith that manifests itself in a social independence and that exists amidst fundamental Islam. To them, in Sukkur the mosque is visible from the river and five times a day the calls to pray sound out beseeching the faithful to prostrate themselves to Allah, the munificent, the merciful, the all powerful giver of life and hope. At this time many Muslims from around the world remember their Pakistan brothers and pray for their deliverance from the current flood devastation. Ironically, near Lahore bombs rip through crowds of a Shiite procession. Other reports state that Hindus were not treated equally in the distribution of food in the flooded Sukkur area.

In July the monsoon rains came, a deluge that began in the hills and massifs of the Himalayas. One needs to have stood in the rain in the monsoons under an umbrella to appreciate what deluge means. I have stood in the rain as a teenager in the foothills of the Himalayas in Mussoorie and the rain poured so hard that the umbrella material became slack with the force, as if buckets of water were cascading down. It rained so long and so hard that shoes under the bed began to mould, sheets on the bed felt damp, and the paths were no more than gullies of rushing water. All that water made its way to the Jumna and thus into the Punjab. (five rivers)

Along the Indus, rats are now swimming for their lives and their bodies join dogs, sheep and cattle, which have drowned. "The Rains Came" a movie set in India received an Oscar for special effects at the time Gone with the Wind received its Oscar as best film. A few of us may remember the roles played by Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power as an Indian ruler, puggari (turbam) and all. The depiction of flooding and the resultant plague that followed came to my mind as I read the accounts in the N.Y.Times of the current Pakistan flood. Plague was not mentioned, but more accurately water-borne diseases. Plague was a western catch-all for all the horrible sicknesses that killed many people, usually from rat infestations which carried parasites..

The rains that began in the Himalayas in July in the Khyber Pakhutunkhwa, Sind and the Punjab soaked the land to the point of saturation, and then rivulets ran into the lowest areas and reached the Indus river adding to its already flooded state which was more than twelve feet higher than during the dry season. And the rains continued, both along the river as well in the mountains that encompass settlements such as Murree, Swat, and Nathiagali.

The news reports are disturbing. The disaster that followed has taken the lives of some two thousand people, has destroyed the homes of more than a million, leaving them wading in hip deep water, their possessions destroyed, their animals drowned; and then the decay of death, a sweet overpowering odor that is like no other; which creates an unconscious retching that leaves the survivor spent and empty.

It has been reported that the flooded area is the size of England. Residents had no high places to go to, but had to endure the water, the filth the smell day after day. Imagine the crop losses, the moldering stores of grain, the loss of seeds to plant the crops for next year, and the gnawing hunger.

Children suffer the most. They are small, helpless and completely dependent on adults for food, care and hygiene. With the monsoons came the flies. By mid-August the flies swarmed like a plague, the rotting bodies of animals providing the feeding for millions of maggots. Flies swarmed over the children. The pictures I see on the Internet of children lying on cots who are literally covered with flies makes my skin crawl.

No clear well water is available when the land is flooded; wells become polluted. Tens of millions now have to drink unsafe water. Fuel for boiling water is not available. Water is the vehicle that now brings on water-borne diseases, particularly dysentery the killer of young children. Reportedly some 72,000 children are malnourished and their vulnerability to other water borne diseases is high. Malaria increases because of places for the larvae to multiply. Typhoid, cholera and hepatitis now run rampant. Skin irritations resulting from fly and mosquito bites create sites for infection.

The country of Pakistan has experienced a tragic flood that has left it unable to function well as a nation. Many roads are compromised, its communications systems along the Indus are cut, roads, schools, electrical services, and many health clinics and hospitals are unable to provide services. This country has been set back years; its administration, feeble before, now is struggling to cope and the nation's military is weighed down with soggy problems such as impaired communication, flooded roads and impaired communication command systems.
In their efforts to bolster Pakistan, the American aid strategies to combat Al Qaeda and the Taliban have in part, been replaced by fundamental, radical Islamic groups who are stepping in and providing services where governmental means fail because of the flood. The floods have political implications among a populace that is ravaged by hunger, lacks proper shelter and is struggling to survive. Help givers such as the Taliban are remembered by the starving. Distant agencies such as the UN through which monies are sent to Pakistan for the relief are largely unknown to the starving displaced common man.
I have traveled along the Indus River by car many times and enjoyed stays in Quetta, Sukkur and Dehra Ishmail Khan, walking the streets of the bazaars, enjoying the slight breeze on the river front, watching the milk men transport their milk across the river in large pots supported by animal skin bladders and smelling the fish frying on the house boats of the Mohanna Boat Men. Many prospects were pleasing, the children, many of them naked ran around and spotting a foreign person, a gora, came laughing and screaming for a gift, a penny or any coins in my pocket.

Pictures I have now seen of the areas along the Indus River are distressing. Water, mud, desperate people struggling to exist is a prospect that few of us can imagine. The numbers are not in yet of the dead and homeless. What we read now is how the world is responding to this tragedy in far away Pakistan, where the Taliban and others who despise America live. Some merciful assistance is beginning to get to Pakistan from America, the United Nations and other countries including India. India is providing aid to Pakistan of $5,000,000; routing this assistance through the UN rather than to the Indian government directly. Hopefully such donations are utilized with alacrity and reach the most needy ones. This goodwill gesture may be an encouragement for other South Asian nations to come to Pakistan's assistance during this period of its misery.

'The Rains Came', and the rains have now subsided, but the needs of the millions of survivors remain. Katrina, Haiti and other world disasters dull the compassion. "Oh, another devastation! Where? Pakistan? Let's see is that one of those militant Islamic countries where the Taliban are and that we are bombing with our drone airplanes?"

Harold Bergsma has published widely in professional journals, and novels. In 2007, One Way To Pakistan was published and in April of 2007 was awarded the Indie Excellence Award for Multicultural Fiction.
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