by MASHA HASSAN
Pakistan is hit with a devastating climate catastrophe displacing around 33 million people where Balochistan and Southern Sindh provinces remain the most affected. Here we publish a conversation with Mariam Magsi* a multidisciplinary artist who is born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, and now resides in Canada. Magsi’s family has been on the ground since the start of these flooding disasters, she shares with us intimate realities of the aftermath. From the invisibilization of Balochistan, to the gendered effects of climate change and the role of grassroots movements, Magsi moving away from the usual statistical facts and figures of climate disasters. Instead, she sheds light on the ground realities by unveiling the local narratives in the Jhal Magsi district of Balochistan. What emerges is a clear view of the social dimension of Climate Change, which far from being ‘natural’ results from the capitalist exploitation of soil and resources, while it affects specifically women, who must cope with the cultural norms which demand their invisibility even when they fight for surviving and being safe after the flood. However, Magsi also explains how solidarity and activism make women visible and break the rule of their subordination, in the collective effort to taking back a future against the present state of destruction.
MH: It seems like there is an invisibilization regarding the climate catastrophe in Pakistan all the more when it comes to Balochistan and Southern Sindh provinces which remain the most affected. Could you give us a ground level overview of what is the current situation like.
MM: Balochistan, as a province, is quite marginalized, despite its rich and ancient history and resources that currently nourish the rest of Pakistan. It is also a strategic location that has come under the radar of foreign developers looking to expand industrial projects using the coast of Gwadar. The Baloch are boxed between the categories of victim or aggressor, subhuman or violent, and deal with an onslaught of atrocities, such as enforced disappearances, poverty and human rights violations, along with consistent armed conflict and also, tribal warfare. When the floods began to impact the province of Balochistan this July 2022, my father, Nawabzada Tariq Magsi from the Magsi clan was already on ground on our ancestral lands in the Jhal Magsi District. His home was flooded and there was immense destruction of farmland. Using the photos and videos he was documenting, I began to use social media to raise awareness through daily updates from him on rising water levels due to continuous rain up in the mountains and the damage the water was causing through flooding. At the time, the blatant silence from local news outlets, governmental organizations and provincial/federal leaders was astounding. As the monsoon spell extended into August, the province saw more than 500% rain than usual, in areas where there has hardly been rain prior to this year. This August, the area, along with Sindh, South Punjab and KPK has witnessed complete and utter devastation due to flash floods and relentless monsoon spells. There has been immense loss of life, livestock, agriculture, infrastructure, housing and resources.
MH: Pakistani Elites and many politicians are stating the floods as ‘natural’ disasters whereas many climate analysts are calling out the developed countries for their carbon emissions and their role in climate change. Do you think there is also a colonial legacy attached to this present disaster in Pakistan? What are the local narratives of what caused these floods?
MM: Environmentalists like Greta Thunburg and Vandana Shiva have been ringing the warning bell for years now on the Climate Crisis, yet very few countries were paying heed, despite heat levels rising at an alarming rate. Take a look at China, for instance, barely anyone is talking about the record high temperatures the country is currently battling. Parts of Europe also saw unmanageable heat waves this summer of 2022. The Climate Crisis is no longer an issue of the future that we need to prepare for, we are already in the midst of it. Who do we blame? The corporations and the industrialists? Capitalistic, profit hungry governments? Ourselves, as the irresponsible consumer? The ruling elites? I think we’ve contributed to the destruction of the planet collectively, and so, the healing and restoration of this place has to come from all of us, collectively, using innovation, strategic foresight and creativity. Shazia Hasan in «Dawn», Pakistan’s leading English newspaper, writes about the destruction of mangroves in the city of Karachi, a place that is seeing continuous, unsettling urban flooding. Land-grabbers and mafia groups have been illegally developing various parts of the city, destroying the very little nature that remains. Mangroves play an important role in the ecological health of the environment, and with concrete sprawled over miles with no updated urban planning, where will the water go when it rains in such unprecedented ways.
MH: Clearly there is the sound of injustice ringing as Pakistan’s role in Carbon Emissions is less than 1% but is bearing the brunt of the present global greenhouse emissions mostly emitted by wealthy countries. Sherry Rehman, who is the country’s climate change minister, in a recent article insisted that ‘rich polluters must pay their due as country is hit by devastating floods’. When it comes to international aid do you think there is a repeating pattern of how the international community responded in 2010 and the way it is responding now? Do you think aid is enough for reparations?
MM: I have made it a priority to support grassroots collectives and local individual/group volunteers. Before international pledges for large sums of money and media coverage of the floods, grassroots collectives such as BYAC (Baloch Action Youth Committee) and Madat Balochistan had already initiated relief projects bringing immediate and urgent aid to displaced communities in need. Reaching into my networks in Canada and USA, I personally raised over $11,000 CAD and dispatched the funds to grassroots organizations and local volunteers, to be utilized for ongoing relief work being conducted in Balochistan. We have also been raising funds and distributing donations in the forms of tents, food provisions, menstrual relief items and funds for rehabilitation. I distrust governmental organizations and foreign state pledges. I cannot comment on what happens to all of these funds, how long they take to come into the country, and how they get utilized in a web of corruption from top to bottom. When donating to grassroots collectives, we get to participate in collective action, with more transparency and immediate, community led problem-solving, albeit on a smaller, and more focused scale.
Apart from aid, the international community should enlist the help of experts to initiate a preventative plan for future, inevitable disasters. A disaster of this scale requires immense long term planning for ongoing relief and rehabilitation, while also innovating how people’s lives can be made a little more livable and manageable during the climate crisis, that will inevitably impact Pakistan year after year.
MH: In an Oxfam report about the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, 70 percent of the 230,000 people killed were women while these numbers and several such reports makes us well aware of the gendered impact of climate catastrophe, the recurring theme is the continuous disregard of gendered vulnerabilities. In Pakistan, during these telling times where women are compelled to come out from their personal space, can you tell us how they are negotiating with this sudden shift from personal to public domain?
MM: I am saddened, but not surprised at these numbers. Women, minorities, queer folk, children, the elderly, and communities from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are severely and disproportionately impacted. Their dignity and privacy is totally stripped away during natural disasters and crises. For instance, in many of the stranded and displaced communities, on open sky shelters and dry patches of land, women are menstruating in soiled clothing. Women died in childbirth, while also being swept away by the water. In deeply gendered frameworks, this becomes even more difficult for women and girls specifically. In our Baloch communities I know of 5 women who have passed away during childbirth during the 2022 flash floods. The water literally took away everything in its path, it’s so frightening to even try and imagine what it was like. Because I am getting firsthand information from my father, including photos and videos from family and clan members on ground, it has been traumatizing, just going through the footage on a daily basis, and realizing this is reality for millions of people right now, and this will be reality for a considerable period of time, as the country prepares for a long road of healing, recovery and rehabilitation. In many of the videos, the women are scrambling to cover themselves with their dupattas or chadars, despite being drenched from head to toe. Even when their lives are at such a high risk, they’re being forced to think about cultural norms and how to negotiate their safety in the public sphere and crisis.
MH: Climate related disasters are tightly linked to patriarchal systems, to existing problems of women’s personhood, their precarious lives and agency. What have been the societal behaviours towards women’s needs and most importantly how have women been at the forefront resisting/fighting stigmas and taboos during this crisis?
MM: That’s a great question because quite frankly, women are at the frontlines in every way possible. Pakistan is often perceived to be suppressive pertaining to women and queer folk, and while this is the case, the resistance that has emerged, especially amongst the women, who are breaking the proverbial glass ceiling in a myriad of ways is truly inspirational. Banari Mengal runs BYAC-Balochistan Youth Action Committee, a grassroots collective recognized by the Bill Gates Foundation. Since July, BYAC has been tirelessly working to bring relief, shelter and recovery to impacted communities all over Balochistan, including Jhal Magsi. Working with local volunteers on ground, many of whom are women, relief supplies are continuously being organized and transferred to impacted towns, villages and councils. My cousin-in-law, Areeba Magsi has raised immense awareness through local and international news channels, while also raising donations to help impacted families in Balochistan, especially in the Jhal Magsi District. Maryam Jamali behind Madat Balochistan has been organizing cooked food for thousands of impacted people, while continuously providing relief and connecting donors with important causes, such as the sponsorship of minority Hindu displaced families who are in dire need of help at this time. Khalida Brohi is a fellow Baloch woman who is raising funds for flood impacted communities, through the Sughar Foundation, an initiative she birthed to progress the economic well-being of Baloch, tribal women. The District Health Officer of the Jhal Magsi District is a woman named Dr. Rukhsana who has been coordinating medial supplies and medication to the various medical camps and mobile clinics set up to help flood impacted people. Women have all been rallying their resources to organize immediate relief and shelter for displaced communities.
University students Anum Khalid and Bushra Mahnoor started the Mahwari Justice campaign, whereby they are organizing menstrual relief products for women and menstruating persons who have lost privacy and access to hygiene and sanitation. In many parts of rural Pakistan, cloth is still used as a solution to menstruation, so along with the distribution of menstrual relief products such as pads and washing supplies, instructional training is also being considered. Women are setting up medical camps, with immense challenges. In some areas of Balochistan, entire councils only have one female doctor and a majority of the clan women are uncomfortable being medically examined by men. It is no hidden secret, that sexual and physical violence increases upon women and children, especially in outdoor camps and shelters.
MH: We wanted to touch upon mental health issues and post disaster trauma as it is often neglected and remains under prioritized, are there any such provisions of mental health services especially for women, LGBTQ, minorities and subaltern people being provided currently?
MM: Trauma rarely gets processed. People are often expected to pick up the pieces and move on. Even taking the time to pause and being able to reflect is a privilege when it shouldn’t have to be this way. Mental health supports are desperately needed in Pakistan, especially during times of crisis and this support needs to be culturally and linguistically sensitive. @coach.within.you (IG) is a dear friend who is currently providing trauma-informed support to women, LGBTQ@+, and minority groups who need mental health support during the 2022 floods. People in my networks are feeling exceedingly demoralized and helpless, especially those of us in the diaspora, with our immediate families and loved ones back home struggling through turbulent times. For example, some days ago a younger Pakistani messaged me saying “will our country even exist” and I immediately connected her with mental health supports. Flood impacted communities have lost so much: homes, livelihood, security, shelter, personal belongings that took years from them to accumulate for themselves, their children and future generations. All gone within a split second. With a shortage of doctors and medical personnel, mental health services will be taking a back seat and won’t be prioritized, even though they should be. For fellow Pakistanis reading this, I can leave a few resources here.[i]
MH: Lastly we have been following your social media and updating ourselves with what is happening, can you talk about Jhal Magsi and their initiatives at the same time highlighting the importance of grassroots solidarity networks.
MM: We have been collectively raising awareness about the dire situation in Jhal Magsi now for over a month, with minimal response from local and international government organizations. During July into beginning August, I began to mobilize networks and resources in Canada, where I reside. We successfully raised $4,220 and 150 families were provided with rations, such as rice, wheat, cans of ghee (clarified butter), materials for tea, salt and lentils. Within weeks all relief and rehabilitation efforts were totally destroyed by continuous flash floods that did not let up even for a moment of relief. Apart from family efforts to provide relief in various parts of the district, organizations like BYAC are also delivering essentials to the district. I completed a second round of fundraising and successfully sent back $5,965. Because there is a surplus of food rations and drinking water coming in, the funds will be directed toward procuring life-saving medication that is urgently needed. Diseases like malaria are spreading at an alarmingly high rate. Children are showing very serious skin infections, covered in rashes from head to toe. Diseases like Typhoid are a huge challenge causing high fevers amongst the people. Women especially are showing a variety of infections that need to be dealt with immediately. Public health is hugely impacted at this time, and we’re talking about populations of people that haven’t even begun to process their losses from the floods. So, the urgent need of the hour is medical expertise, mobile clinics, medical camps and an ongoing supply of life-saving medication, intravenous hydration, and medical supplies. It is currently estimated that over 138,000 pregnant women are in dire need of urgent humanitarian assistance to delivery their babies safely. We are all doing what we can from our little corners on this planet, be it, raising awareness, distributing funds and resources, connecting donors with grassroots efforts, and trying to understand what this climate crisis means for the entire planet going forward, now that we know for a fact, that it’s here, we are in the midst of it, and collective action is needed more urgently than ever before.
*Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan and currently based in Toronto, Canada, Mariam Magsi is a multidisciplinary artist with a Baloch/Punjabi heritage. Using lens-based mediums, text, performance art and installation, Magsi unpacks themes related to migration, queer identity, South Asian cultures, and the lived experience through a post-colonial, intersectional, feminist lens. Magsi’s projects of note include Purdah, artistic and historic investigations into the practices of veiling, Daughter of the Tribe, an ongoing creative exploration of her Baloch identity as a member of the Magsi clan in Balochistan, as well as Dawat Yan Project, which embodies artistic research into the food and hospitality cultures of South Asia.
[i] takecare19.com: A comprehensive list of mental health supports in the form of one on one and group therapy sessions using a variety of evidence-based models of healing and crisis management. Headspace Meditations: Free on YouTube, just head over to the Headspace channel. They have some unique meditations centred around the topics of grief, sudden loss and crisis management. Better Help: Online therapy platform that can instantly connect people with affordable therapeutic services. Trauma, Release and Wellness: Pakistan’s first trauma informed mental health and healing service. You can find them on IG at @trwcentre. If you are a mental health practitioner and if you have the time, please consider getting involved with the Pakistani community to offer supports during the floods of 2022.