Fury of the Indus

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

Floods in the Indus, triggered by the heavy monsoon rain, devastate vast swathes of land and render millions homeless in Pakistan.

in Islamabad

MOVING at a furious pace from the mountainous north-western region of Gilgit-Baltistan to the fertile south, the Indus river, swollen and bursting its banks following heavy monsoon rain since late July, has ripped through Pakistan, laying waste at least 1,60,000 square kilometres of land. No province in its way has been spared, and the floods remain an unfolding emergency as the monsoon season is far from over.

Three weeks into the disaster of epic proportions, there appears to be no respite as the flood waters surge into the heartland of the country, inundating agricultural land, washing away standing kharif crop, roads, bridges and railway tracks, and damaging power plants, refineries and irrigation systems. The country's contiguous landscape, with mountains, forests, desert, plateaux and coastal lands, has been broken up and now looks like an archipelago, the only difference being that each of the islands is surrounded by muddy waters.

The number of deaths is in the vicinity of 1,500. The unprecedented high-level floods have been more devastating than the 2004 Asian tsunami, the earthquake that hit Kashmir in 2005 and the Haiti quake of 2010 all put together.

About a tenth of the population of Pakistan has been directly or indirectly affected by the floods, said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after visiting some of the areas on August 15. Going by the government's estimate of 20 million flood victims, he added: I have visited the scenes of many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this. The scale is so large: so many people, in so many places, in so much need.

A rough estimate is that the equivalent of the total annual rainfall pounded Pakistan in just four days. This ensured that there is no stopping the river waters in a country that was crying for water just a month ago.

Pakistan today is fighting for survival to keep the millions who have been rendered homeless alive and in good health as humanitarian organisations fear a second wave of deaths when the waters recede, stagnate and double as breeding grounds for water-borne diseases. One case of cholera was confirmed by U.N. agencies in Mingora in Swat on August 14, and more than 15,000 cases of acute diarrhoea have been reported from across the country.


For the majority of the affected, who are already in abject poverty, the more immediate concern is hunger. Food riots have already broken out in areas where the government or aid agencies have been able to deliver food by road or air. There are still places that have remained inaccessible as of August 15.

President Asif Ali Zardari disclosed that Pakistan had requested China to airdrop food for 27,000 people stranded north of the Attabad lake in Gilgit-Baltistan as the Karakoram Highway had been cut off and gaining access to the area from the Pakistan side by air was also proving difficult.

While the continuing rain is making rescue and relief operations difficult, a bigger worry is the availability of resources. Aid has been coming in trickles despite repeated appeals by the U.N., which on August 9 came out with the $459.7-million Pakistan Initial Floods Emergency Response Plan (PIFERP). As of August 17, about 32 per cent of the required amount had come in and the slow response including from the Gulf countries is a cause of concern for the government and aid workers.

The Pakistani leadership has conceded that dealing with the crisis on its own is beyond its capacity. All those who have seen even a fraction of the devastation agree that no government, however well prepared, could have been equal to the task. This was the unanimous view of some of the heads of mission who were ferried to South Punjab by Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi as part of his efforts to mobilise the international community to act. This is beyond the means of any one government, agreed Australian High Commissioner Tim George.

Although the general view in Pakistan is that the poor response to the U.N.'s appeal is a statement on the credibility or lack of it of the ruling order, Ban Ki-moon refused to subscribe to that opinion. He is confident that the world will respond. He attributed the lukewarm response to the slowly unfolding nature of the crisis. Unlike the Haiti earthquake or the tsunami, in which thousands were killed in a matter of seconds, the floods have not consumed that many lives. So, the response may have been slower.

While the bureaucrat-turned-politician Shafqat Mahmood also held a similar view in the early days of the floods and maintained that the donor community might be waiting for a proper assessment to see how best it could help, he has now come around to believing that the reputation of Pakistan's top office-holders for corruption has become a real impediment in seeking aid. Friendly governments are willing to work through NGOs but are shy of giving cash aid to the federal government, he points out. This is borne out by the fact that donations and pledges are being routed through the U.N. or offered as relief materials.

However much Zardari has tried to package his week-long European tour as an aid mobilisation venture he articulated this through an article in The Wall Street Journal it has cut no ice with donors. Some people have criticised my decision [to travel overseas earlier this month on a visit that included a stopover at his chateau in France] but I felt that I had to choose substance over symbolism, he said.

To most Pakistanis as also representatives of the international community present here in considerable numbers owing to the global war on terror the visit represented indifference to the ground reality. The world could be thinking that if the Pakistani leadership is not serious then why others should bother. And, rightly so, is the refrain in Islamabad, which has not been affected by the flood waters but is facing their impact in the form of spiralling prices of essential commodities.


Add to this donor fatigue. International donors were already stretched for assistance to Pakistan to rehabilitate the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), a result of the military operations against terrorism. The shrinking aid budgets the world over because of the recession are adding to relief woes. However, the United States has taken the lead in providing assistance as it feels turning a blind eye to the devastation, the ills of the Pakistani system notwithstanding, would neutralise the gains made through counterterrorism operations in the region.

Amid reports of charity outfits of outlawed terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba moving in to provide aid where no one else had reached, the U.S. has rendered assistance of all kinds from delivering over four lakh halal food packets to lending helicopters and marines for rescue missions in a bid to deny fundamentalist organisations a chance to fill the vacuum, and also change the anti-American sentiment that is fairly widespread here.

In fact, the biggest fear is that the floods could well have pushed Pakistan back several decades. Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa (formerly the North West Frontier Province) Chief Minister Amir Haider Hoti said the disaster had turned the clock back 50 years as crucial infrastructure has been destroyed. When Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani likened the present crisis to Partition in his Independence Day address to the nation, the comparison was not seen as an exaggeration. Another parallel that has been drawn is with Cyclone Bhola, which struck the shores of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on November 12, 1970, changing the course of Pakistan's history.

Within months of Cyclone Bhola, an ideology Bengali nationalism feeding off economic deprivation and post-disaster hopelessness took half the country away. This time, a renegade religious ideology feeding off the consequences of the present disaster is drooling to take away the remainder. This must not be allowed to happen, wrote Moazzam Husain of the Punjab Board of Investment & Trade in The Dawn, the English-language newspaper.

Summing up the extent of damage, Husain said 7,50,000 destroyed or damaged houses had been added to the national housing backlog of 7.5 million units. In Sindh and Punjab the agricultural hub of Pakistan the impact of the destruction of standing crops is expected to spill over to the following season as the cash cycle of farmers has been interrupted. World Bank President Robert Zoellick has pegged the estimated crop loss at $1 billion.

Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa, which was the first to face the Indus' fury and still remains flooded, claims its overall loss to be in the vicinity of two trillion rupees. A considerable portion of the food reserves has been lost to the raging waters. There were reports of food stocks of the World Food Programme, which were acquired for the IDPs, being washed away in Nowshera.

In the case of small landholdings along the rivers, the land itself has been washed away in many places and the U.N. estimates that about 30 per cent of the people have lost crucial legal documents, including identity papers. The possibility of terrorists taking advantage of this situation is another cause for concern.

The affected people in Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa include IDPs and Afghan refugees, now victims of double displacement. Humanitarian workers point out that much of the resources mobilised for providing emergency relief to the estimated six million flood-affected people was by way of diverting aid meant for the IDPs. We have to make up for this also, they lament, urging international donors to keep in mind that Pakistan is at present host to the world's largest refugee population 1.7 million Afghans and has also been a keen participant in the U.N. Peace-Keeping Force (UNPKF) across the globe.

Although the U.N. Secretary-General flagged Pakistan's role in the UNPKF as evidence of how the country has stood by the world in difficult times to drive home the point that it was time now for the international community to reciprocate, cynics point out that it was the Army that stood to benefit from participation in the peacekeeping missions. They earned a lot out of these missions, argue diehard advocates of democracy as they fear that the present crisis may well provide an opportunity for the Army to carve out more space for itself in the ruling arrangement.

As the civilian government struggled with its cumbersome administrative structures to respond to the situation, the Army was out in the affected areas, rescuing people and dropping food. Of course, as Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) legislator Ayaz Amir points out, the Army's PR outfit does a slick job, often conveying and suggesting more than what may actually be happening. Indeed, there is considerable muted criticism against accommodating media personnel in the aircraft during some of the airdrop sorties.

The asides apart, the Army's calibrated response was in stark contrast to the bickering and finger-pointing within the political class. Though this is quite common in most democratic set-ups, the fear is that such a picture does not augur well for a country like Pakistan, given its tendency to invite military rule upon itself.

If Gilani found a parallel between the floods and Partition in terms of the enormity of the crisis, Brookings Institution fellow Steven Philip Cohen offers another similarity in The Idea of Pakistan. With the Muslim League ineffective in providing relief and rehabilitation aid to the West Wing, he says, the task of providing and caring for the migrs hence fell to Pakistani bureaucrats and young Army officers. They performed their impossible task with valour, and the experience propelled them to the new state's centre stage.

The stage may be set again for history to repeat itself in Pakistan, but much else remains under water.

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