By Sohail Rahman
August 19th, 2010
As our camera pointed towards the sky it was hard to believe that three weeks previously you couldn’t see the sun. Then it was blocked out by a thick grey cloud. Within the coming hours the heavens would open and rains would fall. Nothing strange there, it was and still is the monsoon season. The alarm bells began to ring when the rains didn’t stop.
It soon became apparent that the rains were forming into floods and floods into a disaster zone. Why weren’t the alarm bells heeded I wondered?
As the helicopters, that had been dots in the bright summer sky, approached, I knew the prime minister had also asked the same questions of local authorities. No weather forecaster since the floods has said why the predictions weren’t heeded. It’s puzzling for a nation that relies so heavily on the rains not to take note of weather forecasts.
The reality is a fault in the way weather news is imparted over the airwaves despite there being a plethora of news channels available. Weather isn’t taken seriously on any of the local channels here. They’re too busy talking politics. Add to that Pakistan’s main problem, it has for some years been a victim of the mismanaged politics and economics of water, drought and an ongoing dispute with India over water access from the north. Even when the rains have come and flooded streets in the principal cities, it’s never been enough to worry the farmers as long as the fields see enough rain they’re not too worried about the levels of the river.
They’ve seen water volumes in the river Indus decline over the years, the problem worsening as the river winds south to the ocean. Water is either siphoned off by farmers to irrigate land or saved up in badly maintained and antiquated reservoir systems.
But there was another way to sound the alarm. In the Swat Valley people are warned by the municipal authority. They have an early warning system, loudspeakers attached to the top of trucks warn residents and farmers of excessive rain.
On July 28, such a warning was given in Mingora. The residents apparently rarely hear this announcement and thought it a hoax. What a mistake to make … but sadder still, the announcements were not made further up the valley. There, nobody was warned. How could such a spread of widely located rural villages be warned? Remember no TVs! Many people are too poor to afford them.
The valleys of death were exactly that.
Imagine several narrow channels. The rain runs into the river and off the mountains so fast that it takes the river bed, boulders and even the sides of mountains with it. This then rolls down the valley, picking up momentum as it goes. One valley opening meets another and the force and volume is exponentially increased. What you have eventually is a thunderous tidal wave of water up to 20 metres high ripping everything in its path free of their foundations. For anything to survive it had to withstand a force so fierce that most people had never seen the like of for over eight decades.
As the prime minister’s helicopter finally landed in Khawza Khela he looked business like and ready to answer the many questions the hungry media pack had waiting for him. His address, like the ones we’ve heard during these past three weeks, was strong on support but weak on practicalities of how much, where and when the aid was going to arrive.
I asked him afterwards what the point of this visit was and what he hoped to achieve?
His reply: “To show that the government is with the people of the affected areas and we will do what we can to help.”
When will that help come? I asked. His reply: “As soon as possible.”
As soon as possible may not be soon enough.
Having just returned from some of the most inaccessible areas of the northern territories, the picture is grim. The government can ill afford the death toll to rise, and with many ground transportation links destroyed, the majestic mountains that have attracted so many to see them may soon be the burial site for thousands if help does not come “as soon as possible!”