Radio, television and newspaper reports of the recent devastating floods in Pakistan are at last beginning to refer to the sheer scale of the problems faced by the victims. Figures for the number of people affected vary widely. According to the Irish Minister of State for Overseas Development Peter Power, reported in today’s (Tuesday) Irish Times, “the United Nations estimated that 40 million people had been left homeless; that eight million of those were in urgent need of immediate food and shelter; and that the combination of rising water and humidity had made a cholera epidemic a real danger”. RTE’s website says “Aid agencies are saying that the world does not fully understand the scale of the flooding disaster ….. One fifth of the country has been hit by severe flooding, with more than 20m people affected…..The UN believes up to 3.5m children are now at risk of contracting water-borne diseases….”.
Whatever the numbers, it is clear that the devastation caused is unprecedented. Apart from the immediate short-term needs in terms of shelter, food and clean water, the Pakistani poor and working class are facing food shortages, higher food prices and increased poverty and deprivation for considerable time to come. Already the price of vegetables has increased by about 100%, sugar has gone up by over 20%, and the price of other staple foodstuffs has rocketed. Transport prices too have soared as operators exploit the desperation of those trying to flee the devastated areas.
Caught between the authoritarianism of a corrupt government which spends huge amounts annually on its military - the defence budget for 2010/11 increased by 17% to 442.2billion rupees (over 4billion Euros) – and the authoritarianism of the Taliban ‘rebels’, the ordinary people of Pakistan face a seemingly hopeless situation. Protests have broken out across the country demanding much-needed aid and support for the victims.
The United Nations Secretary General has announced its biggest ever relief effort and made an appeal for $460million (€358million). The response of the world’s governments has been pathetically slow with less than a quarter of this amount pledged.
It’s worth stopping for a moment and considering a couple of figures – Pakistani government military spending this year at €4billion will be over 10 times the total flood relief pledged by the United Nations. The Irish government meanwhile will throw €24billion (do the maths – that’s over 60 times the total flood relief pledged by the United Nations!) down the Anglo Irish Bank black hole and into the pockets of wealthy speculators.
And they tell us that capitalism works.