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‘It’s Time to Declare War on This Climate-Destroying System!’: Interview with a Pakistani Socialist about the Flood

The flood in Pakistan is one of the most horrific climate events in recent history. A Pakistani socialist describes the consequences of the disaster, as well as the economic crises facing the country.

Maxi Schulz

October 3, 2022
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A Pakistani man wades through flood waters carrying a bit bag of produce.
Image: A M Syed

Interview with Pakistani socialist about the flood

The flood in Pakistan is one of the most horrific climate disasters in recent history. Extreme drought was followed by heavy rains, resulting in a flood that has so far affected more than 35 million people. About a third of the country is under water. Already, before the disaster, the country’s situation was shaped by a deep governmental and economic crisis, combined with severe austerity measures under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund. We talked to Pakistani socialist Shezhad Arshad, member of the Revolutionary Socialist Movement about the disaster and its consequences.

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Shezhad, first of all: how was your day today?

Right now, I am in Lahore. I just came back from a meeting with trade unionists to organize one of our relief campaigns. It is saddening to see that only recently has there been some attention for the suffering in Pakistan. And even now, the attention is already shifting away. However, in Baluchistan people have been affected for months now. There the flood started in mid-June. A few weeks ago, the flood came to other regions such as Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Southern Punjab. Now important factories are affected and, therefore, the economy is in danger, or simply lies in shambles, causing mass unemployment and layoffs. Bigger cities are and were under threat, too. Even if we should be unfortunate with international attention shifting away, the immediate crisis will remain for months to come. Poor families will be affected for years, if not decades. So, we will continue to be active around this. And I appeal to the global left, workers and climate movement, to keep supporting us.

What about the availability of food and drinking water?

As videos from the internet show, the situation in the flooded areas is very bad. It is extremely hot, there is a severe lack of food. Drinking water is virtually unavailable, leaving many people only with the choice to boil and drink dirty water, contributing to the massive spread of diseases. Even the major cities are affected. Already under the conditions of the IMF deal food had become more expensive. Now people go hungry, many do not have enough food for their children. Some can only eat once a day, or not at all.

Who is responsible for the disaster?

If you look at the statistics on climate change, it is clear that Pakistan is only a minor contributor. It is due to climate change that we are suffering under this disaster. This is why the glaciers are melting, and floods are increasing. But the government is also responsible. It knew for months that a catastrophe was coming and did nothing, although it could have learnt from the experience of the floods in 2010, when 20 million people were affected. The policy of the last years shows they ignored this. They don’t care about the ordinary people. For example, they rerouted rivers so that floods would hit residential areas of the poor rather than big factories and the houses of the rich.

Can you tell us about how the flood affects working conditions?

In general, there has been an economic crisis in Pakistan for a long time. Even though the foreign trade deficit has improved a little recently, the country is now forced to import many goods for high prices. Goods which were produced domestically previously. Now inflation is at 27 percent for this year. The forecasts for low economic growth will now be reduced even further. Due to the consequences of the flood, but also due to the measures taken by the IMF, many factories have been closed down. Especially in the textile industry, many textile workers report that they have been laid off. The situation is similar for workers in the brick kiln industry. Everywhere companies are firing people. Even in the software development sector. These companies are doing this although they were recently making good profits. They are using the situation to save those profits while arguing for austerity policies at the expense of the ordinary people.

The international media base the number of deaths due to the flood on information from the government of Pakistan. It has been reported that a thousand people died. Are those numbers accurate? 

First of all, it must be clear that there will most likely be more floods and monsoons to come. According to the government, more than 1,500 people have died by now. From the impressions I was able to gather and from those of activists with whom I am constantly exchanging information, the real numbers are much higher than are reported. In the beginning, there were no or few news reports about the floods, although people were already dying. Considering the extent of the destruction, the now reported numbers are unbelievably small. 45 percent of the land for agriculture lies destroyed, important equipment for production and agriculture, 2 million houses, 246 bridges and 6,500 kilometers of road have been devastated. The water is not expected to disappear in the next two to three months. In fact, the grain harvest should start soon, but there might be an entire harvest lost now. This could lead to a huge hunger crisis. 

Furthermore, there was already a practice of underreporting during the Corona pandemic. The government tried to dodge responsibility. It was also difficult for the media to form a more accurate estimate. Sadly, when poor people die in Pakistan, the state and the bourgeois media are not very interested. But it needs to be added, there are honest and progressive journalists who would like to report more. But they find it difficult to do so under the given circumstances. However, in time, the statistics on excess mortality might tell us more.

Germany continues to deport people to Pakistan in collective deportations, what do you think about that?

This is just unbelievably unfair. Germany is putting pressure on the IMF. Meanwhile, German capital is benefiting from globalization. They, too, have exploited and are still exploiting our resources and territories. Capital has the right to go everywhere. But people are not allowed to — they are “illegal” and forced into deportation! 

We live under bad conditions imposed on us by neoliberalism. We say no to this injustice! It is always unjust to deport people. Germany should know this better than any other society and state, no matter what the situation is. Furthermore, the people from Pakistan have served the German economy, often through cheap labor. This is the thanks they get. 

But unfortunately, we can see similar practices employed by the Pakistani government to crack down on our brothers and sisters from Afghanistan. Pakistan´s capitalists benefit from their labor. And then, the state uses similar racist arguments against them. Furthermore, one must add that a deportation does not only affect the deported person him or herself. Often, the deported are providing for whole families back in Pakistan, or other countries of origin.  Deporting them now, Germany takes away the livelihood of whole families — and this in the midst of this terrible crisis.

What do you think about the aid from the United Nations?

The UN secretary was just in Pakistan and said how bad everything is. He stated that about $30 billion in damage had been inflicted on Pakistan so far. But the financial aid Pakistan is receiving, compared to those damages, is nothing. The help we will receive is a petty portion of what the rich countries will be asking back in debts alone this year. 

There are supposed to be big camps where refugees live in bad conditions. What do you know about the situation there?

Unfortunately, these camps are only available for a small part of the people. But the situation in the camps themselves is not good either. Due to the humid climatic conditions and the mosquito plague, it is especially difficult there for old people, women, and children. But it will be even worse in two months. Then the temperatures will drop and it will be winter. The government has to open its buildings for the people from the affected regions. It has to build new houses to finally give shelter to the homeless.

How do you think the situation will develop in the near future?

It is getting worse day by day, diseases like malaria and dengue fever are spreading rapidly, killing many. There is no relief in sight regarding the scarcity of food and drinking water either. Dengue is now spreading to the cities that are close to the flood zones. A serious health crisis is looming, while the necessary medicine is not available due to cuts in the health sector under the IMF dictates. In addition to this, price increases are making sure that workers, peasants, and the poor are unable to afford necessary treatments.

Are there any initiatives from the population, and if so, what are they?

Since the Pakistani government is doing far too little and is abandoning the poor in particular, there is a need for self-help. Local organizations play an important role in the flooded regions. They finance food and clothing, and help with logistics. Likewise, they collect donations in the cities and abroad. They are making a big contribution. Of course, despite their help, the situation is still very bad. NGOs, left-wing groups, and trade unions are trying to play a role. However, right-wing forces are heavily involved, and traditionally more influential in Pakistan. Therefore, it is all the more relevant to the Pakistani Left to receive support for their campaigns on the ground.

In Germany, the disaster has rather little presence in the media. What could be the reason for that?

One of our central demands, derived from the disaster and the overall crisis, is to cancel Pakistan’s debt. Pakistan has to pay back $21 billion in debt next year, which would be fatal for our country’s people. Of course, the imperialist countries like Germany are responsible for this unjust situation. They are one of the main contributors to climate change. At the same time, they are one of the main actors in the International Monetary Fund. They should pay for the disaster, because they caused it. Immediately, all Pakistan´s foreign debts should be canceled. 

There was a change of government in Pakistan at the beginning of the year, what has changed?

In principle, nothing has changed. The previous government adopted the IMF programme, and the current one is implementing it. They have told the people they are preventing a crisis. They are afraid of being overthrown, like in Sri Lanka. They have nonetheless carried out privatizations, cuts, and tax increases, mainly hitting the lower classes. The cost of electricity and petrol has gone up massively. Some products saw a price hike of 500 per cent. So, there are no changes for the better. This government continues to be the government of the capitalists. They finance big companies and have no problem selling out the country to countries like Saudi Arabia and Dubai. When the lives of ordinary people get worse, they profit. Even before the flood, people were starving. But now, for the first time, it is so bad that there are food shortages everywhere, even in Lahore. In the workers’ areas, people don’t send their children to school. They don’t have money for doctors and hospital visits.

What are your demands to the government of Pakistan?

The government subsidizes the big companies of the capitalists with about $27 billion every year. Instead, this money should go to the flood victims. Furthermore, we demand they tax the rich and capitalists. The government must use a system of progressive taxation of capital and wealth, to increase the budget for the health sector and to send help to the affected areas. It must also provide new housing. Because, in order to finance a house, people here have to work for more than 30 years. It is important that local committees participate in the distribution and oversight of the relief campaigns. We cannot trust the officials: already now there are reports of government officials disadvantaging the poor people. But especially the poorest and weakest should be the priority!

What else would you like to add?

I would like to point out the situation of women, who suffer particularly and receive less help and are confronted with more obstacles. More than 600,000 women are currently pregnant in the flooded areas, which is a dramatic situation. The disaster is a big challenge for the relatively small feminist movement. But we want to face it together and in solidarity with different forces.

Of course, the government and the bourgeoisie of Pakistan have a responsibility. They could have evacuated people in time, helped more, and so on. Even more so, at the moment they are less concerned with managing the crisis and more concerned with fighting among themselves for power. 

However, climate change is responsible for the flood. It is therefore important, that the international climate and working-class movement take up the demand to cancel Pakistan’s debt. Now! They must understand that this disaster in Pakistan, which we are currently facing, is only the beginning of an era of ecological devastation. According to previous climate reports, the intensity of floods in Pakistan was expected to increase by 30-40 percent. Now, we have witnessed an increase of 400-500 percent. If the global economy does not change, this condition will not just become permanent, but worse. 

We need a systemic change to prevent the collapse of the whole of global civilisation. In this regard, the working class in the West has a gigantic responsibility. A responsibility, which they are not aware of yet, and not acting on. But it is high time!

Furthermore, donations are of course helpful in order to bring immediate relief to the flood victims. Trade unions, left and climate organizations which want to help, should feel free to contact us.

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