A A Khalid reviews the floods, the polity and the dangers ahead.
The tragic Pakistan floods, are unprecedented in modern history, the UN recently announced it’s the worst humanitarian crisis in their history:
‘’ The United Nations says flooding in Pakistan is the biggest humanitarian crisis in its history.
The UN says the disaster has already affected more people than the 2004 tsunami and the recent earthquake in Haiti combined’’
The challenges then are unprecedented with now two major immediate to medium term concerns materialising. What these challenges have exposed is the weakness of the Pakistani State (regardless of which political party assumes office) and the fragile and under developed nature of civilian administration.
The first is the threat of disease and the second of food security, but the matter for grave concern is that the mobilisation of aid and relief has still been slow. However, the aforementioned threats seem the biggest challenges posed by the floods, as their effect and the needed response will span months.
The size of the disaster in terms of disease is epic:
‘’ The United Nations has warned that up to 3.5 million children could be in danger of contracting deadly diseases carried through contaminated water and insects in a crisis that has disrupted the lives of at least a tenth of Pakistan’s 170 million people.
It’s a long list of growing risks — endemic watery diarrhoea, endemic cholera, endemic upper respiratory infections’’.
Indeed the threat of disease should not be taken lightly, as Mark LeVine points out:
‘’ Imagine what will happen when the cholera, which is already being detected, and other diseases, really kick in among the millions of displaced people. Imagine the terror if children start dying by the thousands. And then the winter arrives.’’
The healthcare system in Pakistan was already decrepit and inadequate, but what the floods have done in many ways has ruthlessly exposed the weakness of the Pakistan State and civilian administration. This has been commented on before in a political dimension, but beyond that in a bureaucratic and welfare sense, the floods have confirmed what many suspected for years, that Pakistan’s social infrastructure is woefully under-developed. The loss and paralysis of the healthcare system in Pakistan is dire:
‘’ About 46 of Pakistan’s 135 districts have been affected by the flooding. At least 39 health facilities have been destroyed, resulting in a loss of tons of medicines. There is a tremendous need for more medical and related materials to treat people affected by the humanitarian emergency, as well as to immunize children, particularly against polio and measles.’’
It is however the long term food security of the nation which is causing great concern, reports on the subject show little to be optimistic about:
‘’ The waters have wiped out 17 million acres of desperately needed crops. This will mean food shortages in the near future for a country so poor, that it’s dependent on foreign aid to get by even in the good years.’’
Indeed, World Bank President Robert Zoellick said on Friday floods in Pakistan may have destroyed crops worth around $1 billion. The agricultural heart of the Pakistan economy has been badly affected. What is required here is something beyond relief, it requires reconstruction. Not just economic reconstruction, but the very social fabric of Pakistan has to be reconstructed. The feudal system of landlords, where immense power and influence is in the hands of the few has exacerbated the crisis significantly. Other powerful social groups such as the ‘’timber mafia’’, can be seen through their myopic focus on profit have in some ways contributed to the current crisis:
‘’ Experts too believe the water levels rose at an alarming rate and say that inadequate forest cover in the north-west of the country was largely to blame for the intensity of the floods.
Shakil Qadir, the provincial head of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), has highlighted the role of deforestation in Swat, Dir, Hazara and Gilgit Baltistan.
Pakistan has only 5.2 per cent forest cover, but had it had the necessary 20 to 25 per cent, the ferocity of the floods would have been minimised and the damage caused far milder.
Syed Said Badshah Bukhari, the director-general of Pakistan Forest Institute, says that by trapping rain water in leaves, branches and roots, forests serve to slow down the flow of flood water. In contrast, deforested areas become more susceptible to flooding and landslides.
But the absence of forests to slow down the flow of flood water was not the only way in which deforestation contributed to the scale of the disaster.’’
It is the essentially feudal nature of Pakistani society, with the militarisiation of the State which has prevented an autonomous and efficient bureaucracy and structure for civilian administration (regardless of which political party assumes office). Much of public policy to do with areas of social and agricultural infrastructure is determined by the feudal power structure in Pakistan. Until the feudal system of Pakistani society is not confronted and challenged the very maturation and development of the Pakistani State will not precipitate, and its weaknesses will be ruthlessly exposed by natural disasters such as the floods. Historically, human rights aswell as basic labour laws are consistently violated by landlords in Pakistan, what the floods overwhelmingly show is the burning need for social reform.
What is needed as this social commentator rightly points out is:
‘’ I sometimes wonder if what Pakistan doesn’t really need is a good dose of land reform to break up feudal power. The extraordinary inequities in Pakistan seem not only unjust but also an impediment to both economic growth and national consensus.’’
The inability for a workable framework of political discussion and the super polarised nature of the political spectrum has prevented any form of consensus building. It has also meant the discussion on reconstruction, and post disaster recuperation will rarely be held outside provincial and party constructs, making for a dogmatic and superficial debate.
Natural disasters cannot be helped, their effects immeasurably tragic, but what they do reveal is the nature of our political and social institutions, and these floods have revealed and confirmed the glaring weakness in our polity which should now be resolved once and for all. These problems are a barrier to national consensus, and are a barrier to political and social mobility in responding to times of crises.
What is required no doubt is aid and post disaster reconstruction, but also something more deeper , in the words of I A Rehman in Dawn, we:
‘’ must carry out a dispassionate appraisal of the national policies, the nature of the polity Pakistan has degenerated into, and the causes it has thoughtlessly held sacrosanct.’’