Underwater, But Under-covered: Why Pakistan’s political instability deters flood relief

An unprecedented torrent of monsoon rain began falling in northern Pakistan in late July, causing the Indus River – Pakistan’s main water artery, which snakes across the entire country – to burst its banks. Floods soon engulfed one-fifth of the country, including Pakistan’s poorest regions. Nuclear facilities escaped the floods, but two million homes, 5,000 km of roads, 200,000 livestock, and 10,000 schools have been completely swept away in their wake. The official death toll is at 1,700 people. The UN estimates that 21 million people have been displaced, with 13.8 million people in 6,300 overcrowded, disease-ridden camps. Aid efforts have been hampered by landslides, broken infrastructure and haphazard weather – some areas are so inaccessible that donkeys can be the only carriers of aid. Fields of Pakistan’s main crops have been destroyed, resulting in high food prices and a food shortage. The World Hunger Organization and the Red Cross anticipate 1.5 million cases of diarrhea and cholera.

Stories emerging from the catastrophe are grim. A jobless father of five who lost everything in the flood set himself on fire in protest of the government’s slow response. In Peshawar, the local Taliban have recently claimed responsibility for bombing a girls’ school. The handicapped, the elderly, and minority groups such as the Ahmaddiya – followers of a minority sect of Islam – have been cruelly turned away at camps due to a shortage of aid. Millions of landless and homeless peasants crowd around the outskirts of cities seeking food and shelter, drinking from dirty pools of standing water.

International relief efforts started off lukewarm but have improved recently, totaling $640 million through the UN and $866 million outside it. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s poetic pledge of U.S. aid – “We will be with you as rivers rise and fall; we will be with you as you re-plant your fields and repair your roads” – rings hollow against the reality of the Western public response, where public fundraising by charities in the U.S. and Europe is the lowest for any natural disaster in recent memory. The recession has been cited as one of the reasons behind donor reluctance, as well as Islamophobia and the perception that the region is a war zone where humanitarian crises can be overlooked. “I think it was easier for Americans to view Haitians or Chileans as innocent victims who need our help,” Claremont McKenna sophomore Sumaiya Hashmi said. “If Pakistanis are being type-cast as terrorists, Americans are clearly going to be reluctant to give aid.”

A lack of media coverage reflects this reluctance to donate. There is no sign of any high profile celebrity involvement, nor are there big-name media reporters in the region. George Clooney organized a much-publicized celebrity telethon for Haiti’s earthquake victims earlier this year, raising $58 million in the U.S. alone. But where are the Justin Biebers singing for Pakistan? “When it’s Pakistan’s turn, the world closes its ears and turns away,” said Daniyal Shahid, a Pakistani sophomore at CMC and President of the 5C Muslim Students Club. “It surprises me that people try and shrug it off like it’s not that big of a deal.”

Pakistan’s economy simply cannot deal with the floods. On the verge of bankruptcy and currently dependent on a long-term loan from the IMF of $11.3 billion, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will find total flood damages of $43 billion a heavy burden. Partly to blame for the government’s empty coffers are years of low tax revenue; at only 10%, Pakistan’s ratio of taxes to GDP is among the world’s lowest. Economic growth has slowed to a trickle from an average of 7% in the mid-2000s to 4.4% in 2009. Many of Punjab’s famed textiles factories have been destroyed. Emigration abroad, already widespread, is looking increasingly attractive.

Tempers are rising over the PPP’s sluggish relief efforts. Their popularity has plummeted in flood affected areas, which happen to be the most impoverished and least literate areas of the country. Ironically, Central Punjab, the richest region, escaped the disaster but raised a mere $12 million in flood relief. President Asif Ali Zardari came under fire for abandoning his country and visiting leaders in Europe during the floods, with one protester throwing a shoe at him in England. In Sindh, PPP ministers have been accused of directing flood waters off their own lands and into densely populated areas.

Plagued by incompetence and paralysis, Zardari’s PPP has not taken this opportunity to improve its image in this highly unequal country. Opposition parties are planning to pass a vote of no confidence in the PPP soon. One self-exiled political leader, Altaf Hussain of the Mohajir Quami Movement, thinks the “time is rife for revolution,” calling on peasants to overthrow the traditional feudal system that has kept Pakistani aristocrats at the top of the social, economic, and political ladder.

The transparency of PPP aid has also come under fire. The Awami National Party (ANP) of the KP district is widely perceived as corrupt and has little control over its own territory. This lack of trust between federal and central governments is so strong that the Punjab government has proposed the plan of outsourcing all relief efforts to the private sector. Shahid offers a suggestion. “I think people need to send actual goods as opposed to money,” he said. “You never know what will happen with the money, whereas with actual goods you know exactly how you’re helping.”

Meanwhile, former President Pervez Musharraf, currently in self-imposed exile, plans a dramatic comeback to Pakistani politics. He is currently riding the wave of discontent with the PPP, claiming the Pakistani people are “clamoring” for his return. Many benefited economically during his tenure, with the proportion of Pakistanis living below poverty falling from 34.5% to 7%. Nonetheless, with fresh memories of his undemocratic actions – including rewriting the constitution to keep himself in power, gutting the Pakistani judicial courts and gridlocking Parliament – his rivals at home will surely not allow him easy victory. Moreover, with the military firmly in power, current prospects for furthering democracy in Pakistan seem bleak. Having rescued thousands of stranded people, dispensed government aid, and guarded homes against looters, the military has surged in popularity.

With the army’s attention diverted to flood relief, separatist and Taliban groups have sprung to life. Destitute flooded areas are fertile soil for fresh and angry Taliban recruits, and the idea that the disaster is a sign of God’s wrath against the PPP will spread easily. In KP, Jama’at-ud-Da’wah (a terrorist militant group) and Al-Rasheed trust (an organization under UN sanctions for its links to Al-Qaeda) were the first to provide aid to the flood victims. A Taliban spokesperson reputedly told the Pakistani government to reject aid from Western “Christian and Jewish” countries. However, it is unlikely that Islamist parties will draw enough support for a state takeover. The militants are divided, their funding low and number of followers negligible. But the danger is that the two largest parties in Pakistan – the ANP and the PPP – are so incompetent that Islamist parties might start to look appealing to the disillusioned populace.

The catastrophe presents an opportunity for the U.S. to improve its sullied image in South Asia. The U.S. is currently the leading donor nation, allotting $340 million dollars in disaster relief, with a significant amount coming from the Pakistani-American Diaspora community. Close behind its heels, Iran is ranked the third largest donor nation in terms of delivered aid. A message on an Islamist website purportedly from Osama Bin Laden called on Islamic nations to increase the volume of aid to Pakistan, urging the Gulf States, Malaysia, and Turkey in particular to step up their efforts. But the fact that the U.S. remains the top aid donor sends a powerful message of where U.S. interests lie.

A chaotic country already torn apart by ethnic, regional and religious divides, maybe the floods are exactly what Pakistan needs: a clean sweep. As of now, some semblance of order needs to be restored and the trust of the people regained, while in the long term, Pakistani leaders should try to boost the country’s ailing economy and reform its democratic system if they want it to get back on its feet.

Manassinee is a junior at Claremont McKenna College from Bangkok, Thailand and an International Relations major. When not writing, she is scouring fashion blogs, enjoying SoCal's fro yo culture or figuring out why Tim Burton gave the lush, surreal film "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" first prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

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