A few days ago, I stood atop a 30-foot-high levee in Pakistan’s south Punjab, looking out as the waters from the greatest Indus river flood in memory flowed past, through orchards, swirling around a village on higher ground half-a-mile out. Twenty miles wide, the flood was almost dreamlike, the speeding water, as it streamed through the upper branches of trees, carrying along bits of brightly-coloured plastic and clumps of grass.
Many of the displaced people had left the area in the past few days, driving whatever was left of their herds, carrying whatever they were able to rescue. In Pakistan, your primary loyalty is to your biraderi, an untranslatable word, something like clan, but more visceral and entailing greater responsibility and connection. You marry among your biraderi, you must travel and be present when a member of your biraderi is married or buried and, in times of trouble, you stand by your biraderi.
The hundreds of people camped on the levee were those who had no biraderi outside the flooded area, or who couldn’t afford to make the journey to them. Each family had claimed a little spot, made it home, rigged up some sort of shelter like a blanket on a frame of branches. Many had rescued a bag or two of grain, and they sat combing this out in the dirt, trying to dry it. As I walked past, I could smell that much of the grain had spoiled, a bitter loamy odour. These families’ poverty and loss shone in the little piles of their belongings: two or three cheap tin plates, a kettle. In one family’s encampment, discordantly, sat a dresser with a mirrored door.
I found most pitiful a family gathered around a prostrate brown-and-white brindled cow. The father told me that the cow had been lost in the water for four days, and the previous night it had clambered up on another section of the levee, a mile away. The people of this area recognise their cattle as easily as you or I recognise a cousin or neighbour. Someone passing by told the family that their cow had been found, and the father went and got it and led it to their little encampment.
In the early morning the cow had collapsed, and I could see it would soon be dead. Its eyes were beginning to dull, as the owner squatted next to it, sprinkling water into its mouth. The rest of the family sat nearby on a string bed, resigned, waiting for the end.
Driving back to my farm, which has (so far) been spared from the flood, an image of the cow’s ordeal kept coming to me: splashing through the flood for hours and hours, at dusk or in the blank overcast night, with nothing around it but a vast expanse of water stretching away, an image of perfect loneliness. It must have found high ground, waited there as the water rose, then set off again, driven by hunger. In the immensity of the unfolding tragedy, this littler one, this moment of its death, seemed comprehensible to me, significant.
It is difficult to convey the scope of what was lost by those who had laboured with axe and shovel to bring this land under cultivation. Fifty years ago, the area was all savanna, waving fields of reeds and elephant grass running for a thousand miles on both sides of the river. As a boy, I hunted there for partridge, walking among a line of beaters, the tall grasses so dense that I was invisible to the next man only 10 feet away. This was wild country.
But in the years since, these people tamed the land, levelling it by hand, expanding their plots acre by acre, until they had conquered it all. Last year, from where I stood on the levee, one would have seen orderly fields proceeding all the way to the river on the horizon. These lands had not been flooded in living memory, and so people built solid houses and granaries, planted trees, raised mosques. This was their life’s work.
Now all that has been swept away. In this area, the best-paying crop by far is sugarcane, which was to be cut in November but now stands submerged, except for the tips of the fronds, dead and rusty gray on the surface. When the water recedes, the people will, if they are lucky enough to have any, sell their cattle and their wives’ ornaments, to rebuild the watercourses and to level the fields. Some will plant winter wheat, but it will be sown late and will not pay, not enough to cover the costs of reclaiming the land.
Others may plant another crop of cane, which will be sown in February and harvested the following October, 14 months away. Before that, they will have no income whatsoever. The generosity of these people’s relatives, their biraderi, cannot possibly carry them through. They are ruined, and there are millions of them.
This disaster is not like an earthquake or a tsunami. In the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, 80,000 people died more or less at one blow; whereas the immediate death toll from this flood is likely to be in the low thousands. The loss of property, however, is catastrophic. It is as if a neutron bomb exploded overhead, but instead of killing the people and leaving their houses intact, it piled trees upon the houses and swept away the villages and crops and animals, leaving the people alive.
For months and even years, the people of the Indus Valley will not have sufficient income for food or clothing. They will rebuild, if they can afford it, by inches. The corrupt and impoverished Pakistani government cannot possibly make these people’s lives whole again. It’s not hard to imagine the potential for radicalisation in a country already rapidly turning to extremist political views, to envision the anarchy that may be unleashed if wealthier nations do not find a way to provide sufficient relief. This is not a problem that will go away, and it is the entire world’s problem. It is said, the most violent revolutions are the revolutions of the stomach.