Cries For Change in Flood-Hit Pakistan

Cries For Change in Flood-Hit Pakistan

  • 26 September 2010

Pakistan’s worst natural calamity in its 63-year history also presents its best opportunity at redemption. Devastating floods have aggravated the country’s despair at a time when the scourge of terrorism is ripping its fabric apart and the constant toggle between democracy and military rule since independence has deeply discredited the system. Making matters worse, a country that desperately needed water now finds itself inundated by it. But more and more people are now beginning to believe that this could also be a blessing in disguise for Pakistan and may even help build the case for a new beginning.

It may still be a distant dream but there is a realization that such a catastrophe might be a wakeup call: for the ruling establishment to provide good governance; for the institutions to function in cohesive manner instead of working in isolation; and for the people to rise above sectarian identities in the larger interest of the nation. If the feudal lords and their subjects alike see the blurring of land demarcations owing to floods as an opportunity to carry out an equitable distribution of resources, a new phase can begin. Moreover, if a consensus develops that they can ill-afford further deterioration of the situation, things can only get better from here.

The task, however, is easier said than done as there is no denying the devastation caused by the floods. Since July 29, when flash floods and landslides hit northwestern Pakistan and some other parts of the country, more than 1,750 are already reported dead and around 20 million people have been directly or indirectly affected. Around 70 percent of them are women and children and at least half are without shelter. The government declared red alert on August 6 as the flooding reached the South of the country and led to the evacuation of half a million people in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. The UN initially appealed for $460 million in emergency aid but now says it needs more.

Maurizio Giuliano, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Associated Press that the number of people suffering from the floods could exceed the combined total in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Agency said the floods have ruined 8.9 million acres of farmland, drowning 1.2 million livestock. About 6.5 million acres of crops have been washed away in Punjab and Sindh provinces alone, bringing the country’s agricultural sector – which accounts for around 70 percent of exports – to its knees. With seeds, crops and incomes hit, there is a threat to food supplies as the sector, which generates 45 percent employment, is in a mess.

Unfortunately the disaster is still unfolding. Six weeks after the start of the floods, rampaging waters are still pouring into southern Pakistan forcing tens of thousands to flee. As floodwaters make their way to the Arabian Sea, new towns in Sindh are being flooded. Thousands are cramped in countless camps and face diseases ranging from severe diarrhea to malaria. Hundreds refused to flee till the last moment while many have now refused to return suggesting that the upheaval and displacement is here to stay. The impact on Pakistan’s economy has been debilitating as well. The government estimates losses at $43 billion and says the GDP could plunge to around 2.5 percent, from the original target of 4.5 percent during the 2010-11 fiscal.

The devastation has badly exposed the frailties of governance. In what can only be described as a bizarre disconnect, different agencies have generated their own funds, mobilized their own logistics and organized their own relief efforts. Lack of trust has not helped matters as even the countrymen chose to help foreign non-government agencies (NGOs), bypassing local authorities. The prime minister tried to discredit NGOs saying that half the money being given to them would disappear. While the state failed to rise to the occasion, charity wings of extremist organizations fed and sheltered thousands of destitute. It is clear that the rot in the system has deepened so much that the country cannot get its act together even in times of distress.

Hence Pakistan cannot afford to continue with its age-old dysfunctional system. It needs to bring about radical reforms. Some say it begins with the institutionalization of democracy and strengthening of democratic culture. That might be a feasible objective but attempting to institutionalize democracy with the current crop of politicians might not be ideal. Since giving absolute powers to bureaucrats is fraught with danger, army remains the only institution that can restore order in the country. But considering the track record of authoritarian military regimes in Pakistan, their return to the corridors of power may no longer be cheered by the masses.

Even before brainstorming is done on the best way forward, a lot of groundwork is needed. Restoring the country’s image in the face of reversals should be among Pakistan’s leading priorities. The perceived image issue manifested itself during the flood aid response, which was slow to begin with and then there was a general reluctance to do more than what was already done. When the UN warned that the slow pace of pledges is impeding relief operations, the aid finally started trickling in. Then it was made clear that it is time to come to one’s own rescue.

On September 15, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke told editors in Karachi that Pakistan’s allies will only do so much to rebuild the country so the government must raise tens of billions of dollars for reconstruction itself. “The international community is not going to be able to raise tens of billions of dollars,” he said adding: “You have to figure out a way to raise the money. The floods are going to put your government to the test.” Besides being a sign of things to come, it is also a lesson in self-reliance.

The floods have jolted Pakistan’s already fragile economy. The cost of rehabilitation is likely to worsen the country’s fiscal deficit situation, at about 10 percent its tax to GDP ratio is one of the lowest in the world and the country’s tax base remains very narrow. The IMF has approved $451 million in emergency funding to help the country rebuild, besides the $11 billion IMF-backed economic program agreed in 2008. For everything else, the country will have to generate its own resources, which is going to be an uphill task.

The mood inside Pakistan and among Pakistanis abroad has swung from the call for “a bloody revolution” to absolute dejection and indifference. The success for the country, however, lies in its ability to find a middle ground. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s cricketer-turned politician, summed up the situation most aptly. “When I first saw the devastation I was shocked beyond words,” he said. “But then I realized that this was an opportunity for us Pakistanis to get united and start a movement to save those hit by the floods.” If more and more people start to think and act like Khan, Pakistan can be quickly transformed. And this will certainly be better news than rumors surrounding another military coup.