Pakistan: catastrophic flooding triggers multiple disasters

As a result of extreme rainfall, one-third of Pakistan is under water. The floods are affecting 33 million people. Villages and infrastructure have been washed away and 700,000 cattle have drowned. ‘These are the sad facts of what we know so far,’ says Henny de Vries, the new Dutch ambassador in Islamabad, about one of the greatest disasters ever to hit Pakistan.

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What is the current situation in Pakistan?

‘The exact details are still unclear  but the distressing images and statistics that have emerged so far are quite staggering. About 90% of the stricken areas are still unreachable, so we don’t yet know the full extent of what has happened. But the fact remains: Pakistan has experienced the violence of nature on an unprecedented scale. The heavy monsoon rains combined with melting glaciers up in the Himalayas have produced unmanageable volumes of water in the valleys below.’

What is the Netherlands doing to help?

‘The United Nations, the International Red Cross and the Dutch Relief Alliance (DRA) are providing emergency relief aid. The Netherlands was already a substantive supporter of these organisations, but now the Dutch Red Cross has also pledged €500,000 in extra assistance and the DRA €3 million. The  will go to vulnerable groups – young children, pregnant women and people living with a disability. In addition, we and the Enterprise Agency are making every effort to deploy a water expert through Dutch Surge Support (DSS water).’

What kind of assistance has Pakistan requested?

‘Pakistan’s Minister for Economic Affairs has directly approached us for help and expertise in water management. Pakistan is well acquainted with Dutch knowhow in this field, so I anticipate that in the coming months and years, collaboration between the Netherlands, the Dutch business community and Pakistan will intensify and become more concrete in this area.’

Has the capital city also been affected by the disaster?

‘Thanks to its geographical location on slightly higher ground than the outlying areas, Islamabad is still free of flooding. But what we are seeing is that supplies of food like onions, tomatoes and potatoes are becoming scarce. And people are visibly distressed, too – concerned about family members living in flooded areas and worried about the future of Pakistan as a whole. Fortunately, our local embassy staff and their families are safe and sound.’

‘If you buy something in a shop now, you pay a bit more than the normal price. The extra money goes to the flood victims.’

Are people living in Islamabad getting involved?

‘Businesses, mosques and local residents are doing their bit – collecting money and goods for the flood victims. Local shops are helping by putting up their prices. So, if you buy something in a shop now, you pay a bit more than you normally would. The extra money goes to the flood victims.’

These are turbulent times for Pakistan. But perhaps the floods are at least bringing people together?

‘Yes, that’s true of the population in general. But in political circles, community spirit is harder to find. For example, former premier Imran Khan is conducting a vigorous campaign as leader of the opposition, hoping to become prime minister again. We’re seeing that the big political parties in Islamabad are mainly focused on each other. This is distracting people from what ought to be the country’s main priority – effective disaster management.’

Will you be visiting the areas affected by the floods?

‘If there’s a functional purpose to the visit, yes. But not just “to see what’s happening”. For instance, I would go to visit partner organisations that are providing emergency aid with the support of the Netherlands. When I was ambassador to Mozambique, I paid  visits to the projects we were involved with every six months. In the future, that’s what I’ll be doing here, too. But for the moment I’m remaining at the embassy because I haven’t officially presented my credentials yet. I’ve only been ambassador to Pakistan for two weeks. This week, our economic officer visited the disaster area around Badin, a city 220 kilometres east of Karachi.’

‘80% of the harvest has been lost, resulting in major food shortages. There is also an upsurge of infectious diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever.’

What did he see?

‘On the way to Badin he crossed the Indus, Pakistan’s main river. It had become a gigantic lake. In one of the nearby villages, he was distressed to see the plight of people who had already been living in difficult circumstances before the floods. And not for the first time, either: this same area was completely submerged back in 2010.

Food security and public health are posing the biggest challenges to aid agencies. 80% of the harvest has been lost, resulting in major food shortages. There is also an upsurge of infectious diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever. I’ve heard from charities like Indus Hospital & Health Network that, right now, their primary focus is on preventing and treating these infections.’

How is the future looking for Pakistan now?

‘This catastrophe is triggering new disasters. Public health is in danger because millions of Pakistanis have no access to clean drinking water, food or medical care. The widespread outbreak of diseases spread by contaminated water and mosquitoes – such as malaria, cholera and diphtheria – is posing an acute threat to the population. In addition, it will be a very long time before the agricultural land can be used for farming again. Most of the harvest has been lost. Hundreds of thousands of cattle, chickens and goats have drowned. Because of this, food provision in the short term is precarious. Famine is a major threat.

The nation’s infrastructure has been devastated. Thousands of kilometres of roads and dozens of bridges have been damaged. Entire villages washed away. Reconstruction will take many years and Pakistan estimates the total cost will be at least €10 billion. It will be difficult to come up with that sum now that a financial and economic crisis is looming. In August, inflation was already running at 27%. Hyperinflation would damage the national economy even further.’

Are there any reliable figures about the number of casualties?

‘Currently, the official death toll stands at around 1,300. But there are fears that it will turn out to be much higher. The floods are life-threatening at a variety of levels. It’s not just the danger of drowning and the lack of food and clean drinking water. Snakes are posing a real problem, too. We’re hearing many reports of people being bitten. When the water level rises, snakes – like people – look for ground that’s high and dry. So poisonous snakes that normally live in underground come aboveground, and so the number of snake bites goes up too.’

Pakistan is blaming the floods on other countries, which they accuse of being responsible for climate change. Pakistan is now living with the consequences. Is this criticism justified?

‘This is not what we’re currently talking about with our contacts in Pakistan. However, Pakistan does have a point. It’s number seven on the list of countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Yet Pakistan’s CO2 emissions is just 10% of the Netherlands’. Internationally, I expect there will be more and more debate about this imbalance.

But it’s not entirely fair to blame the problem completely on climate change. Critics also point to negligence by Pakistan’s government. Due to many years of political and economic instability, the country is insufficiently prepared. For instance, in relation to early warning systems.’