By Sarah Eleazar
The road along Sher Shah Dyke leading to areas of Muzafargarh that were most ravaged in this year’s Monsoon presents a fitting analogy of the present government. Its foundations swept away by the currents, the road appears to crumble under the weight of any vehicle that dares traverse it.
Any one following reports of rehabilitation of flood-hit areas and victims on media can attest to the bombardment of government press releases claiming that the rehabilitation was swift and transparent. During a recent meeting with Governor Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar, the chief minister informed him that this was the first the process of paying the first instalment of compensation was completed within days instead of months. The government is always quick to respond to natural disasters. Of course since floods aren’t like the June 17 Model Town police operation, the government wants to be seen rebuilding whatever was damaged instead of taking the blame for the damage.
While the efforts led by the chief minister, his cabinet, the entire civil bureaucratic machinery of the Punjab and the Army were swift and “well managed”, they also appear to be somewhat selective. Local politician Jamshed Dasti tried to politicise the entire issue claiming that water was intentionally driven into his constituency to punish his people for voting for him. He was however, for the most part, ignored by the residents of those areas, probably because they had greater issues to worry about – like finding space in a relief camp.
Protective dykes and bunds along the river help Irrigation Department regulate and manage the water levels in a river. This year, Chenab River, from the very beginning, was a devastating flood waiting to happen. After the Trimmu Barrage and Athara Hazari suffered the collective ire of Jhelum and Chenab Rivers, the ever-swelling Chenab turned towards South Punjab.
According to the standard operating procedure during any flood, water is always diverted away from the city. Therefore in the case of upper Punjab, Athara Hazari was submerged to save Jhang City.
In the case of South Punjab, the dykes and bunds have been built in a more precarious fashion. The first breach was a 100 foot cut in Head Muhammadwala aimed at diverting and decreasing flow of water away from Multan city. This breach cut off road links with Kot Addu as flood water ravaged through. Once the administration realised that one cut just wouldn’t make the difference, it proceeded to breach the dyke further along. When the threat of inundation still did not pass, Sher Shah Dyke was breached and then Tilari stream in the Thatta Sial area. Instead of falling back into the river, the flood water then started flowing towards Muzafargarh.
The Pakistan Army then made arrangements to blow up Doaba Dyke on the Chenab in order to save Muzafargarh city. By this time, rescue efforts by the administration had fallen short and thousands of people were seen carrying their belongings or lugging cattle in a bid to escape the flood.
Over a hundred villages were submerged to prevent water from entering Multan city or Muzafargarh. The areas of Kabirwala, Multan Cant, Muzafargarh tehsil, Shujabad, Jalalpur Pir Wala and Alipur were among the hardest hit.
Hundreds of thousands of families from the suburbs of Multan, Shujabad and Jalalpur Pirwala were evacuated within a day after Chenab River started overflowing its banks.
What followed was a climate refugee crisis in south Punjab, the magnitude of which the government was simply not prepared for. Tent cities propped up in the aftermath, lining all the major roads and the Muzafargh Bypass.
From medium-sized landowners to peasants tilling the fields, all residents of areas that were inundated in the floods were consigned to tents clutching the dearest possessions they had saved from the deluge that wrecked their homes.
Food rations were announced, bedding and clothing provided for, the government started making arrangements to provide them financial compensation for all they had lost. Slowly the flood victims were phased out of the spotlight. So where did they go?
A cursory look at the relief camps set up along the Sher Shah Dyke and Shujabad areas makes one thank their lucky stars for a roof over their head. The sight of a toddler running barefoot across the Muzafargarh Bypass, which mostly caters to heavyweight vehicles travelling at high speeds, is enough to give any driver a mini heart attack. But such is the case in these relief camps. With hundreds of thousands people stranded in tents, there is no one you can blame for children running amok on dangerous roads. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif visited these relief camps and congratulated the district administration for taking such prompt measures to provide these people “succour”.
But it is the relief camps along the branch roads of the bypass, where the chief minister doesn’t tread and neither does the district administration, where one finds the dregs of humanity that is indeed ailing.
Surrounded by swamps of stagnant water covered in algae and a decaying odour are thousands of tents where more flood victims live. A social worker who has been visiting camps set up on these branch roads said the first time they visited the area they took lots of food. When they arrived at the camps they were horrified to see the people begging for a drop of water to drink. The air around the tents is a green haze of stench as no sanitation or drainage arrangements have been made. What’s more dangerous is the amount of mosquitoes in the area, creating a massive health hazard.
There is real despondency down south, the social worker lamented. And nowhere is it worse than the flood relief camps that have “escaped” the government’s attention. The scope of relief does not just end with a televised rescue operation, it needs sincere commitment. The government must take immediate notice of the conditions reported in these relief camps. There is only so much apathy this nation can suffer.