Dispatch from a Village Near Hamal Lake, Sindh, in August
VOL. 2 ISSUE 1
In the wake of this year’s monsoon, villagers in Sindh contend with the loss of their livelihoods and the ecological disaster that’s become increasingly familiar. Photograph courtesy of Rahmat Tunio.
THE WEATHER in northwest Sindh remained hot and humid a month after the torrential monsoon spell that wreaked havoc in the region. Among the ceaseless deluge, the struggle to save major cities in north-west Sindh such as Dadu, Sehwan, Johi, Mehar, and Warah continued. In the aftermath, people themselves have taken the charge to strengthen and monitor flood protection bunds, reflecting a mistrust of the state and its elected officials. As per the official statistics, which are still believed to be under-reported, rainwater and floods have impacted 33 million people, displaced nearly 10 million, and killed more than 1500. 1.5 million houses and a million livestock have also been lost, and hundreds of thousands of acres of crop fields—15% of the country’s rice crop and 40% of its cotton—have been ruined. The full picture of the destruction will only emerge once the water level recedes and surveying becomes possible.
On the morning of 24th August, our village, Sabu Khan Buriro, was flooded due to intense water pressure from the overflowing Hamal Lake. The rising water soon breached the flood protection bund, and as water gushed into our village, our priority was to bring our valuables and belongings to dry patches of land. Wading through waist-deep water and in some areas chest deep water, people couldn’t take anything other than bed sheets, charpoys and some rice and wheat grains. They were forced to retreat to elevated surfaces like the flood protection bunds, which were soon packed with people and their belongings. Official rescue efforts are rare in these areas, but surprisingly, the district administration sent 5 mini trucks to evacuate the village. In a state of panic and shock as the water submerged the village, the people were evacuated and most of us ended up on the road.
But this is not a story about my village alone. It’s the story of an entire region dispossessed by the floods and unprecedented rains, and the specter of poor governance, unchecked capitalism, and climate disregard that has enabled ecological collapse.
Mass migration has begun. Families on the roads are forced to stay on charpoys without shelter, food is scarce, and people are struggling with basic necessities. Many people left for cities unwillingly to save their lives, but still there are hundreds who stayed back in dry areas near villages to look after their livestock or moved to safer places with the help of local boats as flood water levels increased. Thanks to the timely help of comrades from the Women Democratic Front, a Pakistan-based socialist-feminist organization, in our village, my family and I succeeded in rescuing essential goods before the village was delinked from mainland Sindh.
This is the story of an entire region dispossessed by the floods and unprecedented rains, and the specter of poor governance, unchecked capitalism, and climate disregard that has enabled ecological collapse.
One of the biggest challenges we are facing after rescuing our families is making contact with people who decided to stay behind. When the flooding began, the elected MPA’s family, a major feudal family in the area, instructed people to leave, but many refused in order to look after their livestock and save what little grain they could. It's impossible for 'elected' MPAs and feudal families to understand the logic of village residents. Our livestock and the rice and wheat saved from last year’s harvest are all we own. It is difficult for villagers to leave the only assets they rely upon at the mercy of the government, because we’ve learned over our lifetimes that the government isn't serious about helping people in the long term, indulging instead in corruption around flood relief goods without any long-term planning.
Many of the villagers migrating have brought cattle and other livestock with them, fearing the animals would suffer from deadly ailments. Caring for the livestock and arranging for their fodder has become an additional responsibility on top of people’s own survival, but to neglect them would further threaten people’s livelihoods. The livestock and the products they offer—wool, eggs, milk, and more—are not only a source of essential nutrients, but social wealth as well. With their crops destroyed and livestock impacted, people are left with no source of earning or income for the year ahead.
As villages and crop fields have turned into lakes and wetlands, cities, water sieged from all sides and acting as makeshift refugee shelters for flood-impacted people, have become a breeding ground for different diseases. Diarrhea, malaria, fever, skin diseases, and respiratory illnesses are spreading, and one of the major priorities for flood-displaced people has been the provision of medical care along with food.
But in addition to physical ailments, for displaced persons, the traumatic experience of losing their homes and becoming refugees has led to psychological issues that largely go untreated and ignored. In the medical camp that we organized through the Awami Workers Party and Women Democratic Front's help, many patients, unable to sleep at night or during the day, asked about sleeping pills. This trauma has been repeating, and worsening, for those living in the floodplains of the Indus.
My grandfather's brother, Hakim Ali, who is visually impaired, has spent 60 years in the fields and villages of our region. He learned to herd with his brothers in childhood and then passed that knowledge onto his sons, and now grandsons and granddaughters. He has brilliantly memorized how to navigate around the village and the grasslands around Hamal Lake, and in the mountains and fields of Kachu. He says he has never before witnessed such a long monsoon. This is the first time in his life that he has had to take refuge in a city. Signs of despair and restlessness are visible in his body language, as limited space in the city has snatched his freedom to move about in familiar open spaces. The unique experiences of each impacted person tell a tale about people's relationships with their surroundings, land, and ecology.
In addition to physical ailments, for displaced persons, the traumatic experience of losing their homes and becoming refugees has led to psychological issues that largely go untreated and ignored.
I first experienced displacement when I was in the 8th grade due to the floods in 2007. We lost our wooden and mud huts and were forced to take refuge in Kamber city, 30 kilometers to the east towards the Indus River. Again in 2010 floods destroyed our houses, crops, livestock, and everything on which we had established our livelihoods. My parents spent the next couple of years selling assets like crops and livestock, saving up bit by bit to slowly build a solid house for us. One summer it was a mud-made room, the next, it would be a wooden part of the house. Enduring in this way, our parents made a house out of their labor, patience, care, and most of all, love. Now, a decade later, we’ve once again lost our homes and entire livelihoods.
Located along the edge of Hamal Lake in Kamber Shahdadkot District, Sindh, we and hundreds of our fellow villagers have been facing an ongoing water crisis for several years now. Due to water scarcity in the Indus River and little rainfall, Hamal Lake has been completely parched for the past couple of years. Last summer many pastoral families from our village and nearby villages who completely rely on the lake migrated nearer to the Indus for grasslands and herding.
When this monsoon started, the long awaited rainfall bore happiness and hope—the hope of rebuilding the lake, of rebuilding the livelihoods entirely dependent on wetlands, of food for our livestock in the arid zones of Kachu where rain creates the possibility for grasslands to emerge. In the last couple of decades, however, rain has either become scarce or bursts forth and the dry soil is unable to soak it in, leading to floods and bringing misery and destruction in another form.
The rain continued for a month. At one point it rained for 72 hours without a break. As monsoon spells came to an end in the second half of August, my family, village, and nearby villagers lost everything they had invested in the land: rice crop seeds, rice paddies, fertilizers, and their labor. People here depend on crops, livestock, and Hamal Lake’s wood and fish. In these desperate times, it’s a harsh reminder of how working people and farmers suffer doubly in an extremely unequal and unjust state and society. The government has not learned anything from the floods that have marked the second half of the twentieth century.
During the floods of the 1990s, 2007, and 2010, cities had remained safe, but this time, what many are comparing to a doomsday, continuous rain has hardly left any home undamaged. Other than its capital city Karachi, every sphere of public life in Sindh has been disrupted. As village life is uprooted and completely devastated, semi-urban or urban areas aren't safe as well. Food crises have worsened, and inflation is skyrocketing as wheat flour mill owners and small shopkeepers to big dealers hike up prices to cash in on the miseries of the flood-displaced population.
The rain continued for a month. At one point it rained for 72 hours without a break. As monsoon spells came to an end in the second half of August, my family, village, and nearby villagers lost everything they had invested in the land: rice crop seeds, rice paddies, fertilizers, and their labor.
Climate change is intensifying the monsoon spells. When Hamal Lake dried up last year, it destroyed livestock and wildlife, the livelihoods of millions of people who depend entirely on the lake to make their ends meet. The story of Pakistan's largest lake, Lake Manchar, is no different. In recent years, it has been either completely parched or filled with contaminated water. When rain is scarce, the Indus River water is diverted to upper stream areas or dammed. But this year it’s threatening to inundate two districts in Sindh. These dual problems of drying and overfilling are directly connected to monsoon cycles becoming increasingly unpredictable in nature. According to environmental scientists, Pakistan is the sixth most vulnerable country to climate-related changes. From dried lakes to heavy monsoons, scorching heat waves and extreme winters, this is already our reality.
In the face of climate emergency, local, provincial, and federal governments lack preparation and their inefficiency in addressing these crises have furthered the suffering of the people. We can't let governments hide behind words like ‘unprecedented’, 'natural disaster’, or ‘punishment due to our sins’. These are man-made disasters and a crisis of governance at the regional and international level. Economic priorities of profiteering at the cost of ecological disruption have resulted in mass miseries for the working classes.
In the epoch of the Anthropocene, worsening air quality, water scarcity, extreme heatwaves and unprecedented rains are becoming a regular feature, not just devastating entire livelihoods but disrupting entire populations. Rain and floods in Sindh are not natural disasters but manifestations of inadequate infrastructure planning as well as consequences of inappropriate efforts to mold and control nature. Rivers, lakes, and natural water streams pave their own ways through the land, and disturbing their natural routes is only causing disasters. If we are to save ourselves from these devastating monster monsoons—as they are being called this year—or deadly heat waves, we need to radically rethink our relationship with nature. We collectively need to reassess our misplaced and delusional drive to alter nature according to our unbridled desires. We need to call out the elephant in the room: Capitalism. And we need to put reins on the unprecedented commodification of everything. If we do not do this and organize against this life-threatening crisis, we will be left with nothing to take protection or refuge in. Each season of the year in South Asia will bring with it a hitherto unknown face of devastation. ▢
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
Photograph courtesy of Rahmat Tunio (2022).
Floods in Pakistan
Women Democratic Front
Awami Workers Party
Sabu Khan Buriro
IBRAHIM BURIRO is pursuing a Masters degree in Development Studies at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. He organizes around issues of ecology, particularly on the subject of the free-flowing Indus River, and has been active in the students' rights movement. Buriro belongs to a remote village in Sindh impacted by flooding. He writes in Sindhi and English.