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Pakistan's foreign minister talks about the country's flood damage


Leaders of Pakistan are at the United Nations this week seeking help for a country under water. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is his country's foreign minister.

BILAWAL BHUTTO ZARDARI: I would like to say I'm, more often than not, an optimistic person. I like to sort of find rays of hope in moments of crisis. I have never been as overwhelmed as I am feeling right now.

INSKEEP: Overwhelmed by the flooding that has covered one-third of his country. Bhutto Zardari faces that problem at the age of 33.

ZARDARI: It is our generation that's going to have to live with the consequences of climate change.

INSKEEP: Which Bilawal Bhutto Zardari sees not as a single disaster, but one of many that the world can expect again and again.

ZARDARI: There's the sort of biblical story of Noah's floods and the rains that lasted 40 days and 40 nights. Well, our monster monsoon rains that we just experienced started in mid-June and ended in August. We had a 100-kilometer lake form in the middle of my country that could be seen from space. We have the threats of epidemics as a result of waterborne diseases. And these floods have washed away a third of my country and the prospects of sort of the economic stability we wanted to see.

INSKEEP: I was looking at a map of the flooding. And I noticed that it appeared to include Larkana, your ancestral family home.

ZARDARI: Yes. That 100-kilometer lake that I was talking about includes my hometown of Larkana.

INSKEEP: We were talking over a video link. And Bhutto Zardari leaned forward into the camera at the mention of his hometown. Larkana, with its ancient shrines and ruins, is near a bend in the Indus River and surrounded by farmland.

ZARDARI: Which is at sea level. So rather than sort of coming down in a rush, as it does for many mountainous areas, it stays there. And I can't communicate to you - I'm not an extremist climate activist. I never was. I was in this sort of understanding that, OK, we have to focus on green energy. And we'll do solar. But this is so overwhelming, because how does a developing country like Pakistan overnight reconstruct homes and households for 33 million people? And it has completely changed our perspective because it's - obviously, we'll continue to focus on green energy and on solar and on wind. But I understand now, as a result of this, that even if we go totally solar and totally wind power that I can't save my people from the next floods.

INSKEEP: When Bhutto refers to my people, you sense the way that he identifies with his country. He's from an elite family in a region where landowners hold power and poor farmers work the soil. His grandfather was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a prime minister who said in the 1970s that he would lead his country into a new era, shoving aside an older generation.


ZULFIKAR ALI BHUTTO: We're an entirely new world today. The mood and the music of the people is different. Either they dance to that mood and music according to its tune, or they get off the floor.

INSKEEP: Bhutto was a top official when Pakistani forces committed genocide in Bangladesh. But he also founded a political party, the Pakistan People's Party, which dominated politics until the army deposed him and, eventually, hanged him. The executed prime minister's daughter, Benazir Bhutto, led repeated movements to restore democracy. In 2007, she called into this program while under house arrest.


INSKEEP: I'm Steve Inskeep. Can you hear me?

BENAZIR BHUTTO: Yes, I can hear you. Can you hear me?

INSKEEP: Yes. Good to speak with you again. Thanks for taking the time. What is your freedom of movement like, if any?

BHUTTO: I have freedom of movement within the house. I don't have freedom of movement outside the house. We've got a very heavy police force, 4,000 policemen.

INSKEEP: Benazir Bhutto was released. But a few weeks after our phone call, she attended a political rally where an attacker was waiting.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Benazir Bhutto assassinated.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The shocking news from Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Her son then became chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, which has woven in and out of power since. This year, Prime Minister Imran Khan from a rival party lost a vote of no confidence in parliament. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's party became part of the replacement coalition government over Khan's continued protests, all of which Bhutto describes as one step forward, two steps back for democracy.

ZARDARI: For those who study Pakistan's history and have seen how past prime ministers have been hanged to be removed from office, have been exiled, witness military dictators take over, this is the first time that a democratic vote of no confidence was deployed to change the government. Not only did Mr. Khan refuse to accept that, when we came up with the numbers in parliament, his deputy speaker declared that we are all traitors and our votes will not be counted.

INSKEEP: Months after his removal, Khan's supporters are still protesting in the streets and claiming his office was stolen.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in non-English language).

INSKEEP: Bhutto Zardari sees the former prime minister as an anti-democratic tool installed by the army that wields great power, then discarded by the army, but still trying to tear down the system.

ZARDARI: This young democracy is also being challenged by a post-fact, alternate reality politics in a highly partisan political environment. And I think that's a particularly distinct and difficult challenge for Pakistan's democracy. And it's yet to see how we will overcome.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about one aspect of this. When I was last reporting in Pakistan, I reported on the freedom of the press because a number of journalists had been knocked out of their jobs, it seemed, or arrested. Now the government has changed. And according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are still arrests of journalists from time to time. It is sometimes hard to say who's behind this. Is your government behind it?

ZARDARI: So as far as the sort of health of freedom of the press in Pakistan, there's definitely a lot of room for improvement. The biggest assault on freedom of the press in Pakistan took place during the last four years of Mr. Khan's government. And it is unfortunate that up until this day, we still don't enjoy the levels of press freedom as we did in the past. But I believe that there has been an improvement. It's only been a few months. Going forward, I hope that we continue to move in a positive direction and improve the environment for freedom of the press.

INSKEEP: Isn't it correct that a Pakistani television channel that was supportive of Imran Khan was completely taken off the air last month by the media authority?

ZARDARI: There should be no channels supportive of either me or Mr. Khan. There should be freedom of the press. And there should be impartial media within Pakistan. Unfortunately, this trend was started from Mr. Khan's time, where now any journalist that he didn't appreciate was fired from their media house. And we saw this trend start where media channels were taken off the air under Mr. Khan's time. And unfortunately, once you set a precedent in place, you set norms in place. You set rules in place. You create habits within institutions to turn off channels for doing the wrong thing, for something you don't like. Then when you're in opposition, those very tools are used against you. That's not something that I can support, nor do I support. We can't repeat the mistakes of Mr. Khan. And Mr. Khan now must understand that the way in which he ruled was not necessarily the most conducive for the country.

INSKEEP: Foreign Minister, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you.

ZARDARI: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is the foreign minister of Pakistan and the leader of the Pakistan People's Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEP BEVING'S "AB OVO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.