Workers' solidarity with disaster victims

The floods in Pakistan have exposed once more colonialism's legacy of underdevelopment and social instability, writes Jim Gilbert

As time goes by, the situation in the flood-stricken areas of Pakistan becomes ever more dire. It is now over six weeks since unusual monsoon flooding hit the north-west of the country. And in that time the authorities have shown themselves woefully inadequate to the task of alleviating this disaster. Aid agencies state that eight million are now displaced within the country. Deaths presently exceed 1,600 and in total 17 million people (over 10% of the population of Pakistan) have had their lives severely disrupted.

The breach in the northern Toori dam that split the Indus river into two devastating streams has this week been pouring floodwaters into Lake Manchar, Pakistan’s largest freshwater lake. If this lake overflows, the important Indus highway is likely to be cut, isolating the area completely. This would exacerbate an already intolerable situation. Most recently, Dadu district has become seriously endangered, with the towns of Dadu and Johi threatened: only a fifth of Johi’s population of 60,000 remains; the rest have scattered. So far, 19 of Sindh’s 23 districts have been deluged. And so the situation continues to worsen.

Nearly four million hectares of crucial farmland have been inundated already. A consequence has been that a large part of this year’s harvest has been washed away. Agricultural losses in Sindh province alone are likely to reach $1 billion, of which $370 million are losses in production of cotton, Pakistan’s most important cash crop. Well over a million livestock have drowned, including many oxen, directly affecting the ability to plant crops.

State and landlord seizure of common lands has long since replaced subsistence agriculture with farming for the capitalist market, nationally and internationally. Large-scale deforestation, started under British rule, has, in the decades since independence, been actively pursued by an alliance of army officers, ministers, government forestry officials and lumber traders. There is every reason to believe that these structural changes in agriculture, the backbone of Pakistan’s economy and the livelihood of most of its people, have led to environmental degradation and contributed in a huge way to today’s disaster.

Pakistan’s Indus Basin Irrigation System (Ibis) is the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world. Ibis comprises “three large dams, 85 small dams, 19 barrages, 12 inter-river link canals, 45 canal commands, and 0.7 million tube wells”. It is “the biggest infrastructure enterprise of Pakistan, accounting for approximately $300 billion of investment”.[1] Agriculture is responsible for 23% of Pakistan’s GDP and 70% of total export earnings and provides employment for 54% of the labour force; systems like Ibis have claimed credit for ensuring agricultural production. But water authorities in Pakistan have been warning about over-irrigation for some time and the chickens have now come home to roost - hugely ill-considered water management has grossly distorted the ecological balance in both Punjab and Sindh and has added to the impact of capitalist deforestation and (under)development of agriculture.

Evacuations have been haphazard because the government and military authorities deliberately did not warn populations of the flood danger in advance - hoping the problem would go away rather than beginning the massive precautionary operations needed. Their priority has been to protect military installations and airfields rather than using those facilities for flood victim relief.

About 30% of annual government expenditure goes on the military, mainly on hardware, while a mere 2%-3% is spent each year on education. The USA provides $1 billion a year in counter-insurgency aid. However, even if army helicopters have been seen on news broadcasts rescuing a few people, military materiel is not designed to save lives.

In fact, the Pakistan armed forces’ involvement has impacted unsatisfactorily on rescue efforts, despite the propaganda and despite the no doubt heroic efforts of individual jawans (rank and file soldiers). Meanwhile the number of workers and poor farmers affected by the floods has soared. Camps of those displaced are disgusting affairs, in which mainly women and children are threatened by serious outbreaks of disease and hunger.

Many in Punjab, Sindh and Pakistan’s north-west regard the government as not merely inadequate in alleviating the impact of the floods but endemically negligent of their wellbeing. Many have looked instead to Islamist groups, especially in the north-west, whose efforts have been seen as unstinting, winning hearts and minds in the process.

Unlike on previous occasions, the Socialist Workers Party has not, thankfully, this time been filling the coffers of Islamist relief organisations.[2] Socialist Worker made the valid point that, “Since August 2008, over 1,000 people have died in raids by US drones, which have frequently targeted South and North Waziristan - areas that have been heavily affected by the recent floods.” It also contrasts the imperialist prioritisation of ‘war on terror’ militarisation in the region with the dismal failure to aid Pakistan’s millions: “If the Nato forces in neighbouring Afghanistan were to divert even a fraction of their efforts towards humanitarian relief, many thousands of lives could be saved” (September 4). But the nearest it gets to advocating mobilisation from below by working class and democratic forces is in its reporting of the efforts of an organisation called Pakistan Fisher Folk, for “using their small boats to attempt to rescue stranded villagers, and take food and medical supplies to others who are cut off”.

To their credit, comrades in the Socialist Party of England and Wales and their ‘oil slick international’, the Committee for a Workers’ International, have actively promoted the only kind of response that revolutionaries should countenance. The Pakistan-based Trade Union Rights Campaign Pakistan recently issued an ‘Appeal for workers’ solidarity’ that urged “all our brothers, sisters and comrades in the international trade union movement to show their solidarity and support for the people affected by the devastating flood in our country, especially trade union members, workers and peasants ... we urgently need your help, solidarity and support for these people. We request that all trade unions, union branches, and workers and members of the trade unions support our campaign. Every penny you donate will be accounted for and reach the affected people.”[3]

We too advocate that flood relief should not be left to corrupt state officials and bourgeois charities. Aid from imperialist governments comes with political strings attached and is channelled via corrupt government officials and bodies. We support and counterpose the initiative of the CWI as an example of workers’ solidarity.

In the longer term, structural change is needed to challenge the corrupt, military-dominated Pakistani state. The working class and its movement in Pakistan have been incredibly weak since partition in 1947, which ensured that sub-continental workers were divided. Uniting workers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka through a democratic confederation holds the greatest hope for working class advance and that of revolution in that part of the world. It is this perspective, too, that needs to be addressed as a democratic demand in the here and now.


  1. www.tbl.com.pk/indus-basin-irrigation-system-of-pakistan
  2. The SWP responded to the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan by encouraging its comrades in Respect to organise collections for the bourgeois religious charity, Islamic Relief (see ‘Like sending money to George Bush’ Weekly Worker October 20 2005).
  3. See ‘Pakistan: workers’ solidarity urgently needed’ The Socialist August 18.

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