The politics of disaster

Pakistan is facing a momentous crisis. By now the devastation that the great flood caused in its wake is beginning to register.



By Faryal Leghari

Published: Mon 23 Aug 2010, 8:42 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:11 AM

We now know millions have been affected, comparisons have been made to the great Tsunami of 2004 and other disasters. This deluge surpasses all combined in the magnitude of its devastation, as told us by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Strange how natural calamities and external events bring nations together irrespective of the differences that exist between communities. We witnessed this during the October 2005 earthquake when the whole Pakistani nation joined hands to help the stricken. This time around while there has been a slower reaction—part of which can be attributed to the continuing ill weather and part to the shocked reaction at the sudden devastation visited upon by the heavens—the momentum is picking pace. But what is interesting is how politics within and without is evolving around the great flood of summer 2010.

The impact of this crisis while shocking is yet to be realised. Pakistan has been set back at least by a good 20 years. Its agriculture sector, the economic mainstay and source of livelihood for millions in the rural areas will take a while to recover. That is putting it mildly. Livestock has perished in the millions, standing crops destroyed, the irrigation system entailing canals, irrigation channels and tube-wells devastated. Rehabilitating millions that are currently displaced and shelter-less is secondary compared to the immediate needs of feeding these people and preventing epidemics. Food, water, medicines and shelter are of immediate priority. Not only are those affected directly by the flood in danger, the country faces a looming food crisis. Already undergoing an economic crunch with all strata of society crippled by the soaring inflation, Pakistan has been bestowed with an overwhelming burden.

Though this is not a time to lament the sad state of affairs in the political echelons but reality is bitter. What is worse is how even the international organisations and outside powers displayed hesitance in extending relief funds. Alas the odour of corruption within the system is too rank to ignore nor dispel with falsities. Let us hope that the newly created national body for flood relief by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani lives up to expectations. At the same time, efforts by the armed forces have been acknowledged and overwhelmingly appreciated by the public.

Moreover, the exploitation of the disaster as an opportunity to gain mileage by the political parties has left a bad taste in the mouth. Irrespective of the divisions within the political setup, the government and opposition factions, the time is one for national solidarity and support. Despite the need to rise above petty scoring, shades of Machiavellian politics abound, with the flood having been crowned the Oracle for the next poll. A word of caution to the mongering lots the anger among the public is too palpable and the judgment will be severe.

While Pakistan waits for the heavens to stop pouring and the international aid to reach the flooded countryside, there is a simple game plan that if followed, can bear results. Each political representative by focusing on his constituency with his own resources and by mobilising volunteers can contribute considerably to relief efforts. The government should at this point welcome this in the larger national interest and not undermine the opposition’s contributions. Every drop counts and so it should be.

As for the international aid that was initially slow to launch is now gaining momentum, with United States leading the way. Quick to react, Washington made a strategic move by mobilising resources and cash to help Pakistan in its hour of need. The immediate dispatching of a thousand Marines and helicopters for relief and evacuation besides relief goods and funds to the tune of nearly $87 million is indeed appreciable. It was an opportune moment for the US to show support and commitment to the Pakistani people in their hour of need and so it did. While many in Pakistan are wary of even this, given that US drones continue to strike elusive targets even during the floods, it is likely to at least tone down the anti-US sentiment.

As for China, it has been reticent to say the least. It is unfortunate that at least till the time of writing this article, Beijing responded to the crisis with only a paltry sum of under 10 million dollars. The people of Pakistan frankly expected much more from China. While China is increasingly wary of the ingresses US socio-economic aid is making in Pakistan in the sectors of education, health, agriculture and small industries, its response at the time of the country’s biggest disaster leaves a lot to be desired. This was an opportunity to prove commitment to the people with things as mundane as basic food, shelter material and medicines.

There is a lot left to be done. The irrigation system needs a total overhaul, massive repairs and new construction. Dams need to be built as an immediate priority to prevent another water crisis. Land needs to be reclaimed, houses built, hospitals set up.

The question is who will come forward to do all this? Pakistan is not in a position to take this mammoth task of rebuilding entirely on its own, it needs support. The Gulf States have already contributed significantly with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE leading the way. It is time for others to do the same.

Faryal Leghari is Assistant Editor of Khaleej Times and can be reached at faryal@khaleejtimes.com


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