Sharif’s Story: Reclaiming Livelihoods for Thousands of Displaced Pakistanis
December 9, 2016
Over a two-day period in June 2007, flooding in Balochistan, Pakistan destroyed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. This unprecedented flooding was a direct result of defective engineering in the Mirani Dam, built by the Pakistani government in 2001. Horrified by the events, Sharif Shambezi fought tirelessly to secure compensation for losses incurred by those families. Shambezi applied for and was accepted to a year-long human rights course provided by Fund grantee Trust for Development Studies Pakistan (TDSP) to learn the skills necessary to advocate for those who lost everything. We spoke with Sharif about his work with families in Turbat, Baluchistan—the city most affected by the flooding:
Can you tell us about the Mirani Dam and where it was built?
Plans for the Mirani Dam date back to the British colonial times, but successive governments all determined that a dam in the region would cause more harm than benefit. In 2001, engineers reviewed 50 years’ worth of reports, and despite the enormous risks, two multinational corporations funded by the World Bank began construction on the dam in Balochistan, the province with the highest poverty and infant mortality rate in Pakistan.
How did you get involved in fighting for the rights of those affected by the 2007 flood in Balochistan?
After the flood, I was baffled by how a development project could have destroyed so many lives. I applied for TDSP’s human rights course, and after months of intensive training, I gained the skills and resources necessary to do formal research. I traveled to communities affected by the flooding over a two-month period. When I saw the conditions there I knew I had to do more.
What did you see when you went to visit the communities affected by the floods?
I remember seeing women sitting under the blazing sun on charpoys (beds) and blankets—there was no shelter, no water, no bathrooms. Children weren’t going to school because the buildings were all destroyed. 370,000 people lost their homes, which washed away with the floods. 35,000 acres of farmland and 150,000 date trees were decimated. Dates are a well-known export from Turbat, and communities relied on them for their economic livelihood. People were traumatized and depressed. Some even suffered heart attacks because they couldn’t survive the loss.
What was it like working with victims of the flood?
I only live 80 kilometers away from Turbat, but to people there I was a stranger. At first, people questioned my intentions and regarded me with suspicion. But after two years of building trust, we formed a small group and together we submitted an application to the District Coordination officials to get compensation for those who had lost their homes.
Was there money reserved from the Dam’s construction to resettle displaced communities?
The dam cost about $60 million, and $18 million of it was allocated to resettle communities displaced by its construction, but the displaced communities never received the money. The company that designed the plan was the only one that got paid.
Were there any community consultations before the dam’s construction, or after the floods?
No, none whatsoever. It took two years after the dam was constructed to even publish an environmental impact assessment! Community members still warned the engineers about the many dangers of building the dam—during flood season water can move as fast as 90km per hour and destroy everything in its path—but folks with degrees from top universities didn’t want to listen to us.
What did the communities affected by the flooding do after the floods?
Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. Communities protested the lack of a government response, so the government said that the $18 million that had been set aside for relocation would be given to people whose homes were situated below 244 feet AMSL (above mean sea level), even though the floods destroyed many homes above that level. I honestly think the government considers Baluch people illiterate, because they made it sound like they were doing us a favor by providing any compensation. They told us storms are caused by nature. “Of course,” we responded, “but the destruction and damage was because of the Mirani Dam.”
Tell us about the struggle with the affected communities after your study and research in 2007.
People who join social movements need to have time to devote to them, which isn’t easy for laborers and daily wage earners. It was almost impossible for people impacted by the floods. They were barely surviving. I got in contact with TDSP in 2009 to see if they could help support my continued work with the affected communities, and luckily we were able to use the Fund’s grant to support my travel to and from Turbat. We held a protest camp in Turbat, and everyday fifteen to twenty different flood victims would come and sit with us. The media covered these protests, but the problem was that the $18 million set aside for relocation had already been spent on compensating people living below 244 AMSL. There was no money left for the remaining victims.
Those victims were not compensated at all?
Well, some were, maybe 50%. The rest went to the assistant commissioner, the DCO, engineers, and political party members. It was incredibly corrupt. We needed to make sure everyone affected by the flooding was compensated. So in 2009 with the support of TDSP and the Fund I went to Quetta, Balochistan’s capital city, and met Dr. Malik, a senator in Islamabad at the time. We urged him to raise our struggle with the Planning Commission, which oversees development infrastructure and manages World Bank and International Monetary Fund investments. When we finally met with the Planning Commission, they said there was no money left for the rest of the victims. Instead of finding a solution, they asked us to tell them how they should get the additional money.
How did you move forward?
Ultimately, the Planning Commission and public works agreed with us, but nobody knew where the money would come from. We returned to Lahore in March 2012 to stage a hunger strike. The police confronted us the second day and told us we needed to leave. I knew if we persisted, we’d be arrested. I asked the police to give us two hours so that we could deliver a letter to the government demanding that they sit down and talk to us. Finally, after a full day of waiting, we got a letter back from them admitting they were responsible and that they were pressuring the Planning Commission to provide compensation to the victims. The government promised to form a committee that would conduct a survey to determine the amount that victims would be compensated. They met a month later. It was the first time the government had taken our struggle seriously.
When did the committee come to Turbat to conduct the survey?
They said the survey would take two months, but it six passed until anyone came. We kept pressuring them until finally we were invited to a meeting in Quetta in December 2012 with the district government and the Planning Commission. Together we estimated the uncompensated losses totaled $35 million.
Then what happened?
Dr. Malik became the minster of Baluchistan in June 2013. Whenever he was in Turbat, we met with him. He knew our grievances well, but urged us to suspend our protests in Islamabad since he was in the midst of negotiations and didn’t want our protests to affect his legitimacy and reputation. His negotiations went on until 2015.
Was money ultimately allocated to the victims?
Dr. Malik was able to meet with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and he agreed to allocate $15 million from his own fund. While this is a huge victory, we still need $20 million more to compensate everyone. There were multiple estimates of uncompensated losses, and the government of Balochistan decided we asked for too much.
Do you believe the flood victims will be compensated? How much time will it take?
The federal government approved the $15 million compensation. Recently, the district government received $5 million of what was promised. The flood victims are relieved that after eight long years, they will finally begin to be compensated for their devastating loss. That said, we want to keep a close eye on the government since we know that corruption is rampant. So we formed a monitoring committee to track when, how, and to whom the money is disbursed.
A final question: what is Turbat like now, 9 years after the floods?
Some of the schools have been rebuilt and are functional again, but there are no colleges. Teachers are conducting classes in little huts since a couple of the primary schools haven’t been rebuilt. There still isn’t any electricity. Bazaars, the main centers of commerce, are defunct. The government provided some housing, but it’s in really bad shape. Mostly, victims are still living in an old football stadium.
UPDATE: Since the time this interview was conducted, R3500 million ($35 million) has been disbursed to approximately 5,000 families—thanks in no small part to activists demanding their rights. Since then changes in the region have been notable, as people have used the money to rebuild homes and send their children to school. Agricultural work has also once again started up. Date farming has largely remained impossible, since it can take decades for a tree to grow depending on environmental conditions.
However, the process has not been smooth, and the government has kept some of the money it promised. As a result, victims are challenging their case in court – arguing that they were excluded from the survey as affected. Compensation to families have ranged from $2,000 to $50,000 depending on their loss.