Tanupriya Singh

'The ax always falls on the most vulnerable': Pakistan demands debt cancellation and climate justice

Even as the floodwaters have receded, the people of Pakistan are still trying to grapple with the death and devastation the floods have left in their wake. The floods that swept across the country between June and September have killed more than 1,700 people, injured more than 12,800, and displaced millions as of November 18.

This article was produced in partnership by Peoples Dispatch and Globetrotter.

The scale of the destruction in Pakistan was still making itself apparent as the world headed to the United Nations climate conference COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November. Pakistan was one of two countries invited to co-chair the summit. It also served as chair of the Group of 77 (G77) and China for 2022, playing a critical role in ensuring that the establishment of a loss and damage fund was finally on the summit’s agenda, after decades of resistance by the Global North.

“The dystopia has already come to our doorstep,” Pakistan’s Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman told Reuters.

By the first week of September, pleas for help were giving way to protests as survivors, living under open skies and on the sides of highways, were dying of hunger, illness, and lack of shelter.

Parts of the Sindh province, which was hit the hardest, including the districts of Dadu and Khairpur remained inundated until the middle of November. Meanwhile, certain areas of impoverished and predominantly rural Balochistan, where communities have been calling for help since July, waited months for assistance.

“Initially the floods hit Lasbela, closer to Karachi [in Sindh], so people were able to provide help, but as the flooding spread to other parts of Balochistan the situation became dire,” Khurram Ali, general secretary of the Awami Workers Party (AWP), told Peoples Dispatch. “The infrastructure of Balochistan has been neglected, the roads are damaged, and dams and bridges have not been repaired.”

The floods precipitated a massive infrastructural collapse that continues to impede rescue and relief efforts—more than 13,000 kilometers of roads and 439 bridges have been destroyed, according to a November 18 report by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Pakistan.

Speaking to Peoples Dispatch in September, Taimur Rahman, secretary-general of the Mazdoor Kissan Party (PMKP), said that the government had been “unable to effectively provide aid on any large scale, or to ensure that it reached where it was supposed to go.” This has also led to the emergence of profiteering, as gangs seize aid from trucks and sell it, Rahman added.

In these circumstances, left and progressive organizations such as the AWP and PKMP have attempted to fill the gaps by trying to provide people with basic amenities to survive the aftermath of this disaster.

Cascading Crises

On September 17, the WHO warned of a “second disaster” in Pakistan—“a wave of disease and death following this catastrophe, linked to climate change.”

The WHO has estimated that “more than 2,000 health facilities have been fully or partially damaged” or destroyed across the country, at a time when diseases such as COVID-19, malaria, dengue, cholera, dysentery, and respiratory illnesses are affecting a growing share of the population. More than 130,000 pregnant women are in need of urgent health care services in Pakistan, which already had a high maternal mortality rate even prior to the floods.

Damage to the agricultural sector, with 4.4 million acres of crops having been destroyed, has stoked fears of impending mass hunger. In a July report by the World Food Program, 5.9 million people in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh provinces were already estimated to be in the “crisis” and “emergency” phases of food insecurity between July and November 2022.

At present, an estimated 14.6 million people will be in need of emergency food assistance from December 2022 to March 2023, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Malnutrition has already exceeded emergency threshold levels in some districts, especially in Sindh and Balochistan.

Not only was the summer harvest destroyed but the rabi or winter crops like wheat are also at risk, as standing water might take months to recede in some areas, like Sindh. Approximately 1.1 million livestock have perished so far due to the floods.

This loss of life and livelihood has taken place against the backdrop of an economic crisis, characterized by a current account deficit and dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

Then came the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

As part of its attempt to resume a stalled $6 billion bailout program with the fund, Pakistan’s government imposed a hike in fuel prices and a rollback on subsidies in mid-June.

“The conditions that the IMF placed on us exacerbated the inflation and cost of living crisis,” explained Rahman. “They imposed on Pakistan tax policies that would try to balance the government’s budget on the one hand, but on the other really undermine the welfare of the people and cause such a catastrophic rise in the cost of living that it would condemn millions of people to poverty and starvation.”

By the end of August, the IMF had approved a bailout of more than $1.1 billion. By then, Pakistan’s consumer price index had soared to 27.3 percent, the highest in nearly 50 years, and food inflation increased to 29.5 percent year-on-year. By September, prices of vegetables were up by 500 percent.

“We went to the IMF for $1.1 billion, meanwhile, the damage to Pakistan’s economy is at least $11 billion,” said Rahman. The figure for the damages caused due to the floods now stands at $40 billion, according to the World Bank. “The IMF keeps telling us to lower tariff barriers, to take away subsidies, to liberalize trade, make the state bank autonomous, to deregulate private capital and banking, and to balance the budget,” he added.

“The ax always falls on the most vulnerable,” Rahman said. “Over half of the budget, which in itself is a small portion of the GDP, goes toward debt repayment, another quarter goes to the military and then there’s nothing left. The government is basically bankrupt.”

“The advice of the IMF is always the same—take the state out, let the private market do what it does. Well, look at what it has done: it has destroyed Pakistan’s economy. … Imposing austerity at a time when Pakistan is coping with such massive floods and the economy is in freefall is the equivalent of what the British colonial state did during the Bengal famine—it took food away.”

Pakistan will be forced to borrow more money to pay back its mounting debt, all while IMF conditions hinder any meaningful recovery for the poor and marginalized. The fund has now imposed even tougher conditions on Pakistan to free up $3.5 billion in response to the floods, not nearly large enough to address $30 billion worth of economic damage. The conditions include a hike in gas and electricity prices as well as cuts in development spending.

It is in this context that activists are demanding a total cancellation of debt, and climate reparations for Pakistan.

The Global North Must Pay

Between 2010 and 2019, 15.5 million Pakistanis were displaced by natural disasters. Pakistan has contributed less than 1 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions, but remains at the forefront of the climate crisis.

Delivering the G77 and China’s opening statement at COP27, Pakistan’s Ambassador Munir Akram emphasized, “We are living in an era where many developing countries are already witnessing unprecedented devastating impacts of climate change, though they have contributed very little to it…”

“Enhanced solidarity and cooperation to address loss and damage is not charity—it is climate justice.”

In its February report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged that “historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism” have exacerbated vulnerability to climate change. Yet, even as the Global South faces an existential threat, the Global North actively impedes efforts toward redressal.

“Reparations are about taking back [what] is owed to you,” environmental lawyer Ahmad Rafay Alam told Peoples Dispatch. “As the climate crisis grows… this discourse [of reparations] is going to get stronger. It’s not just going to come from Pakistan, we will hear it from places like Afghanistan where people don’t have the infrastructure and are freezing in the winter… We’ll hear it as the Maldives and the Seychelles start sinking.”

While this struggle plays out globally, there is also justifiable anger within Pakistan over the government’s failure to prepare for the crisis, especially in the aftermath of the deadly floods of 2010.

“Everyone anticipated that this monsoon would be disastrous, and the National Disaster Management Authority had enough time to prepare,” Ali said. “However, there is nothing you can find that [shows what] the NDMA did to prepare for these monsoons. In fact, they do not even have a division to take precautionary measures.”

Holding the government accountable for its lack of preparedness, which might have contained the damage, is crucial, Alam said. However, given the sheer scale of the impact of the climate crisis on the Global South, talking about adaptation has its limitations. As Alam stressed—“There is just no way you can adapt to a 100-kilometer lake that forms in the middle of a province.”

Activists are drawing attention to infrastructure projects the state is pursuing, and how they put the environment and communities at risk. “As reconstruction takes place it is important not to repeat the mistakes of the past,” Alam said.

“The projects that are affecting riverbeds and other sensitive areas are the development projects themselves,” Ali said. He pointed out that development often takes place on agricultural or ecologically sensitive land such as forests, adding to the severity of future crises.

“It is a very dangerous situation now because imperialist profit-making is devastating the climate, affecting regions that are already maldeveloped. We are living under semi-feudal, semi-colonial conditions in Pakistan, with a strong nexus between the imperialist powers and the capitalists, all making money off our misery,” Ali stressed.

“We have no other option but to fight these forces; there is no other option but a people’s revolution.”

Author Bio: Tanupriya Singh is a writer at Peoples Dispatch and is based in Delhi.

Violence against Indigenous women grows in Vancouver amid 'apathy and injustice'

Violence against Indigenous women is “escalating like never before,” the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) has warned. A series of tragedies have rocked the city of Vancouver (unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh lands) in recent months, including the discovery of the body of a 14-year-old Indigenous child, Noelle O’Soup, in May.

This article was produced in partnership by Peoples Dispatch and Globetrotter.

“Apathy and injustice prevail among the authorities while the intersecting crises of MMIWG2S+ [missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, and others], the colonial child welfare system, homelessness, and the opioid crisis are literally killing our people,” said Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson, UBCIC secretary-treasurer, according to a press release by the organization.

Noelle O’Soup was found in an apartment approximately a year after she went missing from a group home in Port Coquitlam, while under the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), British Columbia. Reports on the circumstances of her disappearance and the investigation into her death have revealed negligence by both the police and the government. “The major investigative oversight occurred despite multiple visits to, and apparent inspections of, the single room occupancy unit where Noelle O’Soup’s remains would finally be discovered,” stated Global News. Her case, unfortunately, is more the rule rather than the exception in Canada.

An Ongoing Genocide

In 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (NIMMIWG) released its final report, declaring that the violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual) people amounted to “genocide.”

The NIMMIWG emphasized that this genocide had been “empowered by colonial structures evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools, and breaches of human and Indigenous rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.”

The inquiry found that “Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or [go] missing than any other women in Canada,” with the figure soaring to 16 times when compared to white women in the country.

A report by Statistics Canada released in April 2022 stated that 56 percent of Indigenous women have experienced physical assault, while 46 percent have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. Constituting approximately 5 percent of Canada’s population of women, Indigenous women accounted for 24 percent of all women homicide victims between 2015 and 2020, according to the Statistics Canada report.

The likelihood of experiencing violence seems to be higher in cases where Indigenous women live in rural and remote areas, if they have a disability, have experienced homelessness, or have been in government care—81 percent of Indigenous women who have been in the child welfare system have been physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime, according to Statistics Canada.

“Across multiple generations, Indigenous peoples were and continue to be subjected to the detrimental harms of colonialism,” acknowledged the report. Not only are Indigenous children disproportionately represented in Canada’s child welfare system (52.2 percent), but advocates have also found that more children have been forcibly separated from their families now than during the brutal Indian residential schools period.

Along with its final report, the NIMMIWG also made a key intervention in prevailing definitions✎ EditSign of genocide, stating✎ EditSign that “In actuality, genocide encompasses a variety of both lethal and non-lethal acts, including acts of ‘slow death,’ and all of these acts have very specific impacts on women and girls.”

“This reality must be acknowledged as a precursor to understanding genocide as a root cause of the violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada,” the NIMMIWG added, “[n]ot only because of the genocidal acts that were and still are perpetrated against them, but also because of all the societal vulnerabilities it fosters, which leads to deaths and disappearances.”

‘The Police Don’t Protect Us’

The remains of Noelle O’Soup were found in Downtown Eastside (DTES), a neighborhood referred to as “ground zero” for violence against Indigenous women. Residents face disproportionate levels✎ EditSign of “manufactured and enforced violence, poverty, homelessness, child apprehension, criminalization, and fatal overdoses.”

Approximately 8,000 women live and work in DTES, where the rates of violence have been more than double compared to the rest of Vancouver, according to data provided by the police.

Indigenous women have an acute vulnerability to violence, and yet the institutional response has been to stigmatize the women in DTES for having “high-risk lifestyles.”

“Harmful stereotypes that are perpetuated against Indigenous women are used as an ongoing tool of colonization to enforce their vulnerability to violence,” stated Christine Wilson, director of Indigenous Advocacy at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center (DEWC), in an interview with Peoples Dispatch.

In 2019, the DEWC published “Red Women Rising,” a historic report produced in direct collaboration with 113 Indigenous survivors of violence and 15 non-Indigenous women in the DTES who knew Indigenous women who have experienced violence, have gone missing, or have overdosed. “Red Women Rising” was published in response to the final report of the NIMMIWG.

Echoing the argument put forth in “Red Women Rising,” Wilson reiterated that “the criminal justice system constructs Indigenous women as ‘risks’ that need to be contained, which leaves them unsafe and exacerbates inequalities.” Widespread bias✎ EditSign within the policing system has not only influenced whether police take Indigenous women’s complaints seriously, Wilson explained, but also whether Indigenous women approach the police at all.

“The police don’t protect us; they harass us,” stated DJ Joe, a resident of DTES, in the report by DEWC. “Native women face so much violence but no one believes a Native woman when she reports violence.”

In cases involving missing or murdered women, there is a lack of proper investigation and adequate resources, Wilson stated, adding that family members of victims were subjected to insensitive and offensive treatment, alongside general jurisdictional confusion and lack of coordination among the police.

Police have also been actively hostile and abusive toward Indigenous women in Canada. They continue to be targets of sexual violence by police forces, particularly the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which has been deployed on contract policing services in 600 Indigenous communities.

Lack of police and judicial protection also overlaps with criminalization, thereby exacerbating violence against Indigenous women and girls. Wilson added, “Indigenous women are more likely to be violently attacked by their abusers and then more likely to be counter-charged by the police, compared to non-Indigenous women.”

Colonial Patriarchy Poses the Highest Risk

As “Red Women Rising” outlined, “Settler-colonialism intentionally targets Indigenous women in order to destroy families, sever the connection to land-based practices and economies, and devastate relational governance of Indigenous nations.”

The report identified “[m]ultiplying socioeconomic oppressions within colonialism,” including loss of land, family violence, child apprehension, and inadequate services, which worked to displace Indigenous women and children from their home communities.

Forty-two percent of women living on reserves lived in houses requiring major repairs, according to the report, and nearly one-third of all on-reserve homes in Canada were food insecure, with the figure soaring to 90 percent in some areas. Meanwhile, 64 percent of Indigenous women lived off-reserve, in areas such as DTES.

Displacement is closely linked to housing insecurity, with all members of DEWC having experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

The violence that Indigenous women face is tied to poverty, which in turn “magnifies vulnerability to abusive relationships, sexual assault, child apprehension, exploitative work conditions, [and] unsafe housing,” stated the “Red Women Rising” report.

Not only are Indigenous women disproportionately criminalized for “poverty-related crimes,” but Indigenous families are also investigated for “poverty-related ‘neglect’” eight times more as compared to non-Indigenous families. “[H]igher stressors associated with living in systemic poverty such as drug dependence and participation in street economies are used against Indigenous women in order to apprehend Indigenous children, thus perpetuating the colonial cycle of trauma and impoverishment,” the report pointed out.

As a result, activists argue that what is needed is an “assertion of Indigenous laws and jurisdiction, and restoration of collective Indigenous women’s rights and governance,” and “individual support for survivors such as healing programs.”

“Red Women Rising” had made 200 recommendations to address violence against Indigenous women. Meanwhile, the NIMMIWG had issued 231 “Calls for Justice,” stressing that they were legal imperatives, not recommendations. However, in the three years since the release of both these reports, the Canadian government has made “little progress.”

“While there have been crucial acknowledgments on the subject of violence against Indigenous women,” Wilson told Peoples Dispatch, “now we need actions. We need funds for reparations, we need housing, and we need clean water on the reserves.”

Author Bio: Tanupriya Singh is a writer at Peoples Dispatch and is based in Delhi.

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