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Published:February 19th, 2009 13:55 EST
A Disaster Strikes  Balochistan

A Disaster Strikes Balochistan

By Syeda Abbas

Logistics, bureaucratic hurdles and gloomy weather have hampered relief efforts in Balochistan, battered by tropical cyclone Yemyin of June 26.

The ethnic Balochs are the main peoples in the region devastated by Yemyin. The terrain is harsh, arid and hilly. The people tend livestock or have date orchards. They are penurious even by Pakistani standards. Running water is a luxury; most children come to school barefoot.

The first cyclone Gonu came barely two weeks before this one. When peoples` homes of raw mud were damaged, they were evacuated to the only cement structures in town; mosques, government schools and hospitals. The rest are sleeping on the ground. They are exposed to desert predators; scorpions, spiders, mosquitoes. says Dr. Baloch via phone from Gwadar, southern Balochistan `s largest city.   He says, Though Gwadar was spared the ferocity of the cyclone, our communications and transportation system was destroyed.  He says groceries come to Gwadar and Turbat from Iran or Karachi; the land routes are wrecked. There is a food shortage as there is no way of getting food in the city. All the goats, cattle, chickens have perished. There is no electricity in the entire Makran division for ten days.  Dr. Baloch moved into his generator- nourished office a few days ago. He says it is hard finding diesel for generators and petrol for cars.

Local officials, Red Cross, Edhi Foundation are all helping in the relief effort, which seems sluggish to the thousands displaced. The carcasses of dead cattle litter the streets of Gwadar. There is news of dysentery outbreak near Turbat. Cyclone victims manifested their frustration over the ten-day power breakdown in the sweltering heat. In Turbat the last week scenes of protests, firing and shelling were repeated. The victims gathered in front of the offices of the local government and burnt tires and vehicles.

Red tape is major hurdle in getting aid to people.  Floods and landslides in Sindh, army operation in Islamabad distracted the state machinery that finally released some Rs 200 million to Gwadar yesterday.  The bureaucratic structure is hierarchy based. Funds sanctioned from Islamabad reach the provincial government who will in turn send them local officials in Gwadar. These officials will counsel on distribution and then release it to the public.  This would mean a delay of weeks and heightens the victims` anger.     

The local government structure was recently revamped by abolishing the office of deputy commissioner. This local bureaucrat knew everyone by sight and was cognizant of local needs. Ahmad Baksh Lahri chief of Gwadar Development Authority says via a written message from Gwadar, The old system was more useful  as the effort was more centralized. There is communication lag between the army and people. 

The Army may be wary of opening old wounds; the last major military maneuver in 2006 killed Nawab Akbar Bugti. Most of Pakistan`s natural gas reserves lie in the proximity of his ancestral lands, Dera Bugti. The gas royalties and earnings were the source of fiery dispute.

Pakistan`s biggest relief organization Edhi Foundation entered Makran after five days. Edhi Foundation is a Karachi-based body; despite eyeing investments in Gwadar`s new infrastructure Karachiites are ignorant about the people and terrain. People are afraid to come here,  admits Dr. Baloch. The dangers of kidnapping are very real.  The sparse news filtering out of Balochistan converges on mundane tribal activity; kidnapping, bomb blasts, clan rivalry and shoot-outs. Therefore, despite the proximity, Karachiites rarely venture to Balochistan. Mrs. Farah Ali is from a Panjgur- based family and lives in Karachi. She is wary of local conditions on rare visits.  Several liberation fronts, political groups, eager to get Islamabad`s attention carry out the subversive activities. However compared to the Frontier`s Pathans their efforts are sophomoric; death tolls are low, suicide bombing is rare and they remain virtually unknown outside the province. 

As with the Kashmir earthquake, the terrain and hence remoteness have defied rescue efforts. The rivers are in the north west of the province and drain south. The Balochistan Plateau is separated by high mountain ranges to the east and west and is connected by poorly maintained roads. Some roads are unpaved and mere dirt tracks, lightly graveled intolerant of rains. The only metal roads are the RCD Highway and Coastal Highway. The RCD links Karachi to Quetta; the Coastal Highway connects Karachi and Gwadar. Tribal sentiment has transcended political boundaries. The rahdari or travel pass allows free passage to ethnic Balochs on both sides of the Pak-Iran frontier. The heavily traveled highways were damaged by the cyclone. Mrs. Farah Ali says by phone from Karachi,  My relative Masi Hava was stranded on this road for nearly two days without food or water. She was finally rescued by an army helicopter and flown to Karachi on Sunday.  Daily Dawn reported officials saying that 400- 500 people may still be stranded on the Coastal Highway.

Flowing water is sparse in this desert region; darya in the local dialect connotes river, stream, ocean or sea. Rivers Lehri, Bolan, Narri in the Kachhi plains are usually dry earth beds are now roaring waterways. Turbat like rest of Balochistan was hit by the severe monsoon system and thus flooded.  The Kech River overflowed its banks and some water ran off the spillway of the Mirani dam.    Says Dr. Baloch.  Officials concede that the dam`s design may be deficient but say the water level is thirteen feet lower than the crest level of the Mirani dam. The regions of Jhal Magsi, Nasirabad and Jaffarabad are in high flood by the heavy rains.  

Airplanes are the only way of getting supplies into the regions of south and central Balochistan where circa a million people have lost homes and livestock. Airplanes need landing strips, airports and refueling facilities. The airports of Gwadar, Panjgur, Pasni and Turbat are small and poorly equipped to handle a crisis. The Pakistan Air force has a nominal presence via a forward base in Pasni and a satellite base in Gwadar. According to an Asia Times news report the Pakistan Air Force bases of Pasni, Dalbandin and commercial airport of Jacobabad are used by U.S. allies and therefore have been sealed off to general public. The nearest military base that could sustain massive relief effort is some hundreds of miles away in Quetta.

The military has established air bridges in Pasni, Gwadar and Turbat. The choppers are airlifting doctors, paramedical staff, and troops but they are incapable of transporting food supplies. This endeavor seems deficient to some. Mrs. Ali is critical. She says via phone from Karachi, I am so angry. They knew about this storm. Why didn`t they prepare in advance? Now they are using four or six helicopters for the entire province . The Pakistan Army reported using six C-130 aircrafts to drop relief supplies over a region, nearly one- third of entire country. As a corollary, no relief has reached some areas.

The confusion extends to the figures; the official statistics on the dead or injured are only by district and vary considerably. The official death toll is 250 is expected to rise as the floodwaters receded. The number of displaced people ranges between 80,000 to a million. Some reports say over 1.5 million people have lost homes and cattle.

Associated Press of Pakistan reported state officials said that relief camps were set up in Turbat, Naseerabad and Jaffarabad; six days post- Yemyin. The locals and relief workers are apprehensive of the weather forecast for the next few days.  Pakistan`s Meteorological Department has issued a weather advisory predicting severe rains all over Sindh and in southeast Balochistan. The challenge is to warn the populace with limited access to TV, radio, newspapers and telephones. The rains expected between July 5 and 6 may again damage roads and highways.