Posts Tagged ‘ Arabian Sea ’

Pakistan’s Floods: Deja Vu, All Over Again

By Ishaan Tharoor for Time

These days when it rains in South Asia, it doesn’t just pour — it floods. A month of monsoon squalls has deluged hundreds of towns and villages in northwest India and Pakistan. The latter has seen the most acute flooding, and, on all evidence, has been the least prepared for it. At least 233 people have already died and 300,000 are now stranded or in makeshift camps — a figure that will surely grow. Officials in Pakistan claim some 5.5 million people so far have been affected by rising waters. That’s still only a fraction of the 20 million hit by last year’s catastrophic rains, but the forecast looks ominous.

Neva Khan, Oxfam’s Pakistan country director, spelled out the dimensions of the crisis on the relief agency’s website:
There is an urgent need to provide immediate and life saving relief to the millions affected. It hasn’t stopped raining in Sindh for the last 10 days. Large swathes of land are underwater and people are desperately awaiting relief. They have lost their crops, homes and livestock for the second time – and been pushed from last year’s disaster to this one.

Sindh, the vast, fertile province abutting the Arabian Sea, appears the worst affected. Across Pakistan, some 900 villages have been wholly submerged and millions of hectares of arable land — some still irrevocably damaged by last year’s floods — are under water.
What’s most depressing about the situation now is how keenly it echoes the 2010 calamity. Omar Waraich, TIME’s Islamabad correspondent, wrote this excellent piece a year ago for the magazine’s international editions. As the waters rise, Pakistan faces a familiar cocktail of maladies from last summer.

Then, the civilian government headed by the unpopular President Asif Zardari was hampered by political infighting and its fundamental subservience to the real power of Pakistan’s influential military. Now, not much has changed (though Zardari is still in his position, a surprise to some). Then, militants and terrorists were exposing the fragility of the Pakistani state with cold-blooded strikes on some of country’s major cities. Now, after a rancorous summer of barb-flinging with the U.S., not much has changed either — not least when suspected al-Qaeda allied militants raided a prominent naval base in Karachi earlier this year. Then, the cash-strapped government pleaded for foreign assistance. Now similar calls are being issued, with similar notes of desperation.

In the weeks to come, inquests will be made into whether enough had been done to shore up riverbanks, provide shelter and food for the hundreds of thousands left destitute for over a year, and prepare for the next season’s rains. Already, there are reports of angry civilians blockading roads — like last year — demanding outside intervention and aid. Cities like Karachi, which this summer has seen a spasm of internecine blood-letting, will be further strained by refugees fleeing the countryside.

On many levels, though, the disaster is not man-made. The floodplain of the great Indus river, home to over 100 million people, birthed one of the world’s first ancient civilizations. But the river likely also swallowed it up. Because of its own particular ecology, the Indus can’t be controlled by similar mechanisms of levees prevalent in the West. And climate change has made weather patterns more unpredictable and volatile. This BBC story from a year ago cites the research of an Indian scientist: Professor Rajiv Sinha, from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, who has had first hand experience of Asian river floods, takes a more strident position.

“What all the climate models predict is that the distribution of monsoon rains will become more uneven in the future,” he told BBC News.
“Total rainfall stays the same, but it comes in shorter more intense bursts.”

In August 2010, more than half of the normal monsoon rain fell in only one week. Typically it is spread over three months.
Professor Sinha remarked: “Rivers just can’t cope with all that water in such a short time. It was five times, maybe 10 times, more than normal.”
So, if the unusually intense 2010 monsoon is the shape of things to come – and that is uncertain – the future may hold more flood misery for the people of Pakistan.

It’s a closing sentence that has proven sadly prophetic.

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In Pakistan, Truck Decoration a High-Octane Art Movement

By James Parchman for The New York Times

MURIDKE, Pakistan — Here on the historic Grand Trunk Road, some 40 miles north of Lahore and a few hours south of the former bin Laden hideout of Abbottabad, a mosque’s call to Friday afternoon prayers was overwhelmed by Pakistani pop music spilling from open-air markets. The barks of bus conductors calling out destinations added to the din.

The passing parade of motorized rickshaws, farm tractors, buses and highway cargo trucks looked as if a re-enactment of ’60s peaceniks making the pilgrimage to Woodstock might be under way. A panorama of red, yellow and green, mixed with plastic whirligigs, polished mahogany doors and gleaming stainless steel cover plates, was a magical sight for a visitor with a love for anything on wheels.

It was not only the variety of vehicles — all are common across South Asia — that elicited this reaction, or even their Partridge-Family-meets-Ken-Kesey color schemes. Rather, it was the fascinating quantity and surrealistic detail of their decoration, unlike anything I’d seen in my travels around the world.

A deeper understanding of the origins and meanings of the decoration craft was gained over days of mingling with the truck drivers and the owners of decorating shops in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar.

Karachi, situated on the Arabian Sea, is Pakistan’s major seaport. It is also the cargo hub of the country, and with 13 million people has a great many local and intercity buses. As such, the city supports a considerable customizing industry: When Saudi Aramco World magazine published an article about the trade in 2005, more than 50,000 people in Karachi were said to be employed decorating buses and trucks.

What I found at the Pakistani workshops was a pride of design and a willingness to answer questions — and to show off their creations to a former long-haul trucker.

Sparing no expense

At a driver’s cafe near Karachi’s 3-mile-long International Truck Yard (where I turned down an offer of boiled camel meat and cow-leg soup) workers took me by the hand to the shop of Masallah the truck decorator. My Dockers and Rockports were as out of place as their long-shirted, working-class shalwar kameez outfits and leather sandals, called chappals, would have been in one of New York City’s outer boroughs.

But my full beard may have helped in gaining their confidence and a look inside their truck cabs. Government safety agencies equivalent to OSHA were nowhere to be seen in the truck yards, and workers, many of whom were children of the owners, were being showered with sparks from their grinders and cutting torches.

Many of the trucks being outfitted at Masallah’s carried identification plates from Balochistan province. Their owners were prospering thanks to a steady demand for hauling loaded sea containers from Karachi’s port to landlocked Afghanistan. Their cargo, typically including supplies for U.S. and NATO military operations, make a trip of 500 miles by the southern route to Kandahar or 1,200 miles by a northern route to Kabul.

Pakistani truck owners can easily spend more on their trucks than on their homes. One driver from the Gwadar area of Balochistan told me he had just bought a Hino truck chassis for the equivalent of $35,000 and brought it straight to Masallah’s workshop. There he might spend another $25,000 for its body, paint and decoration. During the several weeks required to complete the work, he would sleep inside or under the truck, on his bedroll.

Adding decorative touches like ribbons, spinners, flags and polished steel cutouts in the shape of animals to a small bus costs an owner at least $800. This is considered an advertising expense; a highly decorated bus is usually the first choice of customers when there are several options.

Nissan and Hino tandem-axle trucks of the flat-front cabover design, many assembled in Pakistan, are the popular choices for cargo-haulers today, replacing the revered Vauxhall Bedford, a British model with a traditional cab. The Bedford was the mainstay of Pakistan’s cargo network since the early days of Pakistan’s independence.

The Bedford is still prized for its sturdy chassis and ability to continuously haul outsize loads. Many have bodywork with a high-crowned front prow, which lends itself to decoration and gives the truck the look of a sailing ship.

As is the case in the United States, offering a sharply decorated truck can be a powerful incentive for recruiting drivers. Pakistani bus and truck owners usually allow their drivers, whose average wages are about $75 a month, to work out their own designs in conjunction with the owner of the decoration shop.

Big business

Predictably, mass production has changed the business over the years. Adornments are no longer exclusively handmade.

“Pakistani buses were originally decorated using carved woodwork and individual paintings,” said Kurram Awan, the owner of a small shop of truck-decorating supplies in Lahore.

“Now, my shop sells over 1,000 different items, including braids, reflectors, flashing lights and antennas,” he said.

He added that the Pashtun drivers (Pashto speakers from the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan) spent the most on decorations.

Durriya Kazi, an artist and teacher in Karachi, has long been a proponent of Pakistan’s folk art. She sees bus and truck decorating as an integral part of that tradition, noting the importance of distinguishing between sculpture as defined by the art gallery and the rich activity of actually making things that exists all over Pakistan.

In 2006, Kazi was instrumental in a program intended to spread Pakistan’s bus decoration skills to Melbourne, Australia, where a tram was transformed into a replica of a minibus used on Karachi’s W-11 route, resplendent in all its finery.

Another Pakistani with expertise in the subject is Jamal Elias of the University of Pennsylvania, a professor and the author of “On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan” (Oneworld, 2011). His book explores the tradition of Pakistani truck decoration, and looks deeper into the “nature of response to religious imagery in popular Islamic culture.”

In an e-mail, Elias said that the creative inputs of decorators included several major themes, which could be combined across the cab and body of the truck or bus. These include Islamic religious images like the horse of Muhammad and depictions of the mosques at Mecca.

Other possibilities include images of a fish, representing good fortune, or the elegant eyes of a woman, representing beauty.

Beijing Agrees to Operate a Key Port, Pakistan Say

By Jeremy Page for The Wall Street Journal

Pakistan’s defense minister said China has agreed to take over operation of the strategically positioned but underused port of Gwadar, and that Islamabad would like the Chinese to build a base there for the Pakistani navy.

Ahmad Mukhtar gave no clear timetable on the possible change at Gwadar, on Pakistan’s western coast, which is currently managed by a Singaporean government company. But his statement Saturday is the latest illustration of how Pakistan is portraying China as a powerful alternative ally and aid source if the U.S. scales down military assistance for Islamabad in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s killing.

China is eager to expand its influence in Pakistan over the long term, but is wary of the country’s chronic instability, which was highlighted late Sunday when a Pakistani naval base was attacked in the western port of Karachi, about 300 miles southeast of Gwadar.

Mr. Mukhtar made the announcement after accompanying Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on a visit to China last week. During that visit, Pakistani officials say, Beijing agreed to expedite delivery of a second batch of 50 jointly developed JF-17 fighter jets to Pakistan, possibly within six months.

The fighter agreement prompted India’s defense minister, A.K. Antony, to express serious concern in a meeting with reporters late Friday about the growing defense ties between China and Pakistan, and to assert that India’s only possible response was to build up its own military arsenal.

Attempts on Sunday to contact Mr. Antony and other Indian officials for comment about Gwadar were unsuccessful. In the past, Indian officials have expressed concern that China plans to use Gwadar as a staging post for naval operations in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and beyond.

China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment.

China—Pakistan’s biggest arms supplier—provided 80% of the initial $248 million funding for the construction of Gwadar, a former fishing village in the southwestern province of Baluchistan whose 47-foot-deep port is the only one in Pakistan capable of handling the biggest cargo ships.

Pakistani officials say Gwadar will be a trade hub for Central Asia and a transit point for Chinese oil imports, most of which are now shipped via the Malacca Strait, making them vulnerable to piracy or naval blockades.

China and Pakistan also have discussed plans to build an oil pipeline from Gwadar to northwestern China, and two new stretches of railway extending the Pakistani network to Gwadar at one end, and to the Chinese border at the other.

Some U.S. and Indian military officials see Gwadar more as part of a so-called “string of pearls” naval strategy, wherein China has also funded construction or upgrades of ports in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

China, however, says its involvement in these ports is only commercial. Some experts question the commercial and military value of Gwadar because of a long-running separatist insurgency in Baluchistan and the high cost of building and maintaining a pipeline and railway.

Construction of Gwadar started in 2002 and finished in 2007. Since then it has been operated by Singapore’s PSA International under a 40-year contract, for which a Chinese company also had bid.

But the port has attracted far less traffic than it is designed for over the last four years, due in large part to opposition from politicians in Baluchistan, who say local people get insufficient benefit from the port and other commercial projects, relative to the central government.

PSA’s contract has been challenged in Pakistan’s courts and in September, Adm. Noman Bashir, the country’s naval chief, called for it to be reviewed. Pakistani officials also say the Singaporean government hasn’t pushed hard enough for Pakistan to become a full dialogue partner within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as India is, taking part in some talks and meetings.

Mr. Mukhtar’s statement said the Chinese government had agreed to Pakistan’s request that it take over operation of Gwadar when PSA’s “term of agreement” expired, according to the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan.

“We are grateful to the Chinese government for constructing Gwadar Port. However, we will be more grateful to the Chinese government if a naval base is being constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan,” Mr. Mukhtar was quoted as saying.

A spokesman for PSA declined to comment.

While hailing its close ties with Pakistan last week, China was more reserved in its public statements to avoid antagonizing the U.S. and India and becoming too embroiled in Pakistan’s problems, political analysts say.

But sSome analysts also say China sees an opportunity in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death and the expected drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to expand its influence in Pakistan as part of a long-term plan to contain India, open new trade routes, and enable its navy to operate further afield.

“China is trying to undercut the U.S.’s numerous interests in Pakistan,” said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “Gwadar was the linchpin of [the] ‘string of pearls’ strategy and the latest news adds to that. India faces a unique challenge that no other country does. Its two nuclear armed neighbors are closely aligned and are stepping up joint military programs. India will have to step up its deterrent capabilities.”

Mr. Mukhtar said in his statement Saturday that Pakistan had also asked for an unspecified number of 4,400-ton frigates on a “credit basis” from China, and for the Chinese government to train Pakistani personnel on submarines.

He also asked China to induct the JF-17 into the Chinese air force in order to encourage overseas sales of the relatively cheap, multipurpose fighter jet. He said that China “subscribed” to Pakistan’s request to buy a more advanced Chinese fighter jet called the FC-20, also known as the J10, but didn’t give further details.

What Are Chinese Troops Doing in Kashmir?

By Randeep Ramesh for The Guardian

The claim that more than 7,000 Chinese troops have been handed “de facto control” of Gilgit-Baltistan, a northern part of Kashmir, by Islamabad, has set alarm bells ringing in Delhi. India – which, like its nuclear-armed rival Pakistan, claims the entire state – has long been worried that the People’s Liberation Army was working on roads and railway projects in the Karakoram mountains.

What is true is that China plans a massive highway linking western China to the port it is building at Gwadar, Pakistan, on the shore of the Arabian Sea. The benefits are obvious: the journey time from factory gate in, say, China’s wild west, to container ships bound for the Gulf will be cut from weeks to a few days. Eventually it may even become a key energy supply route.

All of this troubles Delhi, which has long asked for China to keep its nose out of Kashmiri affairs. However, the rise of the Middle Kingdom and its need to secure passage through its own troublesome provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet through to Pakistan make this unlikely. But India suspects, too, that China is intent on becoming the hegemon of much of the eastern hemisphere – able to dictate to smaller powers the rules of the game.

In Kashmir this had led to a round of tit-for-tat diplomatic incidents. So when India refuses to allow a Chinese diplomat to visit its troubled north-eastern state of Manipur for a talk, China responds by blocking the visa of a top Indian general because it appears his command includes Kashmir.

The Himalayan state is a piece of real estate whose sovereignty has long been contested. With its demography as varied as its topography, its various peoples have long been imbued with a stubborn streak of independence.

So it may be unsurprising that when heavy rains washed away villages in the Pakistan’s “Northern Areas” and Islamabad’s response was to sit on its hands, the simmering revolt against Pakistani rule flared again. In response Pakistan, so the claim goes, turned to its all-weather friend China, which was more than happy to send boots flying.

All this is dismissed in Beijing but only after referring to Gilgit as a “northern part of Pakistan”, which simply angered Delhi further. While Pakistan’s problem in its part of Kashmir has been of too little government action, India’s rule in its portion of the state has been heavy-handed and self-defeating.

Faced with a largely nonviolent revolt which began in 2008, the Indian authorities have provoked a much larger crisis with a regime of curfews and the killings of teenagers shot dead with nothing but slogans in their mouths and rocks in their hands. It is time for India to admit that its political and military strategy has failed to stabilise Kashmir.

The actions of both Pakistan and India vitiate claims that somehow either could keep the entire state happy. China has little sympathy with separatist claims – and holds sway over large chunks of the former Kashmiri kingdom.

The only way out of this mess is for Islamabad and Delhi to start rebuilding a peace process that will eventually lead to self-governance on both sides of the de facto border and a withdrawal of substantial numbers of Indian, Pakistani and, yes, even Chinese troops from Kashmir.

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