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Mubashir Ahmed Headshot

Floods in Pakistan Expose Chronic Poverty, Injustice

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Last summer's massive floods swept through Pakistan and destroyed lives, houses, crop lands and road infrastructure, causing enormous suffering and damages across an area the size of Italy. The disaster has drawn a significant emergency and recovery response on the part of numerous international NGOs, taking them to often remote areas where any kind of aid had been sparse for many years.

What Concern Worldwide and its fellow aid organizations discovered -- aside, of course, from communities' grave needs in the wake of the floods -- were chronic conditions of poverty, malnutrition and poor health, as well as, especially in Sindh Province, inequitable conditions for tenant farmers and laborers. Most of the flood-affected areas where we are working today were already very poor and vulnerable before the floods, and ranked low on the U.N. Human Development Index.

Tenant farmers work very hard for very little and are trapped in an archaic feudal system. The landlords benefit much more from the land than their tenants. Seasonal tenants are paid only a third of the profit gained from the harvest, and they have no rights or formal relationship with the landowner -- who is often an absentee landlord -- once the harvest is over. Attempts have been made at land reform on several occasions since the foundation of the state, but a lack of political will made these efforts ineffective.

There have been widespread accusations of diversion of flood water by influential figures during the 2010 floods, as reported widely in the national and international media [Daily Express Tribune, Islamabad (Jan 16, 2011); BBC News, South Asia (Sep 2, 2010); The Telegraph Pakistan (March 19, 2011)]. Pakistan's Supreme Court has constituted a judicial commission to investigate the breaching of dykes in Sindh by influential landowners to save their farms.

Children are the major victims in all of this. That becomes evident when you examine malnutrition rates. Lack of proper nutrition has been a problem in Sindh for some time and the situation was exacerbated by the floods -- stored food, standing crops and agricultural inputs like seed and fertilizer were destroyed in the deluge.

A UNICEF report, entitled "Children in Pakistan: Six Months After the Floods," quoting data from the Sindh Department of Health, indicates malnutrition at or beyond emergency threshold levels, with a Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate of 23.1 percent in Northern Sindh and 21.2 percent in Southern Sindh. The World Health Organization gives 15 percent as the emergency threshold level to trigger a humanitarian response. The same report, referring to records from Northern Sindh, has revealed a Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) rate of 6.1 percent. These figures are on a par with what NGOs have been confronted with during the most severe nutrition crisis in Africa.

I am cautiously optimistic that the spotlight put upon the country's very poorest people will have long-term beneficial effects. But the task at hand is staggering.