Pakistan Under Water: Aamina Ahmad on Disaster and Despair After the Historic Floods
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Novelist Aamina Ahmad joins Fiction/Non/Fiction hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss the situation in Pakistan as the country tries to contend with the aftermath of historic floods that have displaced 35 million people. Ahmad, whose debut novel The Return of Faraz Ali is set in Pakistan, talks about her own connection to the country; the scale of what has occurred and its connection to climate change; and how a long history of political instability, militarization, and economic hardship have affected the country’s most vulnerable. She also reflects on writing about corruption, and reads from her acclaimed debut.
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From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: I was very sorry to hear about the floods, which is one of the reasons we’re having you on, along with your work. The scope of what’s happened is pretty staggering. I want to say that the numbers are sort of incomprehensible, but of course it’s our job to try to comprehend it and put it into context for this podcast and for our listeners. A third of the country is underwater, 35 million people displaced, and $30 billion in damage. I remember when the Missouri River flooded—which is near where I live in Kansas City—in the ’90s. It was very bad but it was nothing like that. How has your community there experienced the flooding and what’s the situation on the ground now?
Aamina Ahmad: Well, my network is very much an urban network and you know my family, as I said, are in Lahore and Karachi, and we belong to a very privileged section of Pakistani society, so actually they have not been impacted. We’re very much—like the rest of the world—bystanders watching what’s happened really in rural Pakistan. Although Karachi annually usually gets some flooding, most of this has happened in southern Pakistan in Sindh and Balochistan and in really, really poor and deprived areas. Pakistan has this year also been in a state of economic crisis with a very intense kind of inflation.
So these were communities that were already dealing with that. And now a crisis situation has turned very nightmarish for them with the floods, and it continues… I mean, the flooding already happened, but obviously the repercussions are still in full force right now. Much of what’s happening is to do with illnesses. Waterborne illnesses, cholera… What I’ve heard described anecdotally are huge banks—what look like tidal waves of mosquitoes, carrying dengue and malaria. It’s been really catastrophic.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: One of the things that first caught my attention about this was a Facebook post posted by a friend of a friend that noted that more people had been displaced by these floods than by Partition. Which immediately I was like, oh my God, I don’t think I am actually comprehending these numbers. The floods occurred over a few months as a result of monsoon rains, and then my understanding is that the floodwaters are expected to take three to six months to recede. In this time, the displaced population includes, for example, a lot of pregnant girls and women—now where are they to give birth? Etcetera. And yeah, these waterborne illnesses.
There’s been a lot of media coverage of the floods. Whitney and I are both former—and still sometimes—journalists, and we’re always interested in our guests’ take on how mainstream media is covering the subjects in which you take an interest or have a history. And I know that I am horribly picky about coverage of Sri Lanka. I’ve been reading the news coverage you post about Pakistan—you’re one of the people I turn to being like, what did Aamina post? What did you link to?
And that also made me curious about what you’re not posting. And I wonder if you have any pet peeves about the way that this has been covered or any outlets that you would point us to that are the most reliable. What, in your opinion, is the media getting right and wrong as it covers this large-scale climate disaster?
AA: It’s interesting to talk about coverage, because you’re right, it did have some coverage, especially as soon as people understood the scale of it, because it was happening over months. And initially, even in Pakistan, there wasn’t as much coverage until the situation became such a calamity. Yes, there has been some coverage. I mean, if you ask Pakistanis, they will say there has not been enough coverage. The reason Pakistanis feel that is because Pakistanis are still in the throes of trying to raise money.
And I think from around mid-September, I started seeing on my news social media feeds that it’s disappeared, we’re having a lot of trouble raising money now. So I think the thing about the news cycle is you tend to get a snapshot at the most dramatic moment, the apex of the story. But of course, the story is ongoing. And right now, we’re just in the middle of a very long, perpetual second act of that story. My frustration often with mainstream news media is how fragmented the stories can feel when they’re covered. You get a moment, but one of the things you don’t get as much context about is how temperatures have been rising now for several years in Pakistan.
They were hitting temperatures in certain places this spring in April, May—I think they were 120 degrees. And this is just a process that has been happening. The conversation gets divorced from the bigger story about climate crisis, and that this flood is not a freak occurrence. It’s happening because this is now a pattern; it’s the changing weather patterns that have evolved as a result of increasing temperatures.
So I think Pakistanis would want more coverage, they definitely want to see… I mean, what we’re also facing—as well as all these immediate crises around waterborne illnesses, is actually hunger, which is going to become more and more striking in the coming day. There have been over a million animals lost. And while it takes that long for the water to go, it doesn’t mean that the land is ready for planting.
WT: I was just going to ask—because I don’t have a sense of this, and maybe you would have a better one—what the topography of the area that’s flooded is like. If it is mostly plains, if the flooding is coming from a single river or from multiple rivers or from rainfall happening in one place… You know, when I think about flooding in America, it’s usually that a certain river had this big flood and went over its banks.
Or the Mississippi floods, or there’s a hurricane. I mean, there’s all of those different kinds of things that can happen. So could you share just a little bit more of what it looks like on the ground there—I know you haven’t been there, but what do you know from talking to people and from the news that you’re covering?
AA: Well, I have no expertise in the area of topography. But the monsoon rains have been so torrential. So my understanding is that what has happened and why they’re having such difficulty in draining the water is areas have become inundated with water that do not usually get that water; there is no way to pump the water. They’re having to cut through roads and infrastructure in order to get this water back towards rivers.
WT: So it’s coming from rain, it’s getting stuck, and it’s not able to drain. That’s interesting. That’s very different from anything I’ve experienced.
• Review: ‘The Return of Faraz Ali,’ by Aamina Ahmad – The New York Times • Pakistan’s IMF loan shows few signs of stopping economic slide – Nikkei Asia • Pakistan’s Biblical Floods and the Case for Climate Reparations: Isn’t it time for rich nations to pay the communities that they have helped to drown? By Mohammed Hanif, The New Yorker • Imran lashes out at ‘facilitators of conspiracy’ at Karachi rally • Imran Khan: Pakistan police charge ex-PM under terrorism act – BBC News • A history of U.S. interference worsened Pakistan’s devastating floods – The Washington Post by Maira Hayat • First came the floods. Now, Pakistan’s children face a new disaster • GoFundMe: Medical Camp for Pakistan Flood Victims • Alia Haider on Twitter • Sri Lanka’s IMF Saga – The Diplomat • Sri Lanka holds rates as crisis-hit economy banks on govt reforms, IMF bailout | Reuters • Poetry, Prose, and the Climate Crisis: John Freeman and Tahmima Anam on Public Space and Global Inequality (Season 3, Episode 17)