Nature has a strange way of altering the destiny of men and nations. The great biblical floods gave rise to the Jewish Nation, the terrible famine of Bengal in the 1850s helped provoke the first battle for India’s independence. The devastating cyclone which hit East Pakistan in 1970 was indirectly responsible for the creation of Bangladesh. Throughout history, famines, droughts and floods have affected nations and civilizations. When a nation is weak or unstable the effects of natural disasters tend to be more pronounced.
Today, as Pakistan reels under the worst floods in living memory, and an ineffective government struggles to come to grips with the problem, there are fears that the waters may have swept away more than just its people and land. It may just change the future of this already beleaguered nation.
When a nation is weak or unstable the effects of natural disasters tend to be more pronounced.
The effects of the floods have been more devastating than any other man-made calamity in Pakistan’s 63 year old history. Already it has lost more than the combined material and human loss in all its four wars with India and many opine that these are even worse than the 1929 floods which caused similar devastation. The floods which began around 18 July have swept across the entire length of the Indus from its catchment areas in the Hindukush and Karakoram ranges through the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province and into the picturesque Swat valley – which is just recovering from last year’s military campaign against Islamic militants. It surged through the fertile agricultural belt of Punjab – which feeds the nation and is the bulwark of its economy – and swept into Sindh right down to the mouth of the Indus on the Arabian Sea. Along the 1000 km long route of its devastation the Indus has swollen into a 20 kilometer wide torrent at places. In the process, the waters have claimed an estimated 1600 lives but that is no measure of the human calamity.
Over 20 million people have been affected and over 500,000 rendered homeless. 1.4 million acres of agricultural land has been destroyed and almost one fifth of the country (an area the size of UK) has been submerged under water. The relatively small death toll does not take into consideration the thousands more who will perish due to cholera, typhoid, gastroenteritis and other water borne diseases. What makes it even worse is that the flood waters have washed away roads, bridges, canals, headworks and railways which will take a decade to re-build. Pakistan’s irrigation network in Punjab and Sindh, on which its agricultural based economy is dependent, has gone – and with it not only this year’s crop but the output for the next three or more years will be affected. But, more importantly the psychological damage has the potential to rip apart this fragile, unstable nation.
The Economic Cost
The economic cost of the disaster will hurt Pakistan most. Pakistan’s economy is predicated on its agriculture and dependent on aid. With its crops gone, it is now faced with a zero percent GDP growth and galloping inflation of 25 percent, against the targeted GDP growth rate of 4.5 percent and inflation rate of 9.5 percent for this financial year. By conservative estimates it will take $ 500 million to rebuild Pakistan – but this time foreign aid is not coming. Donors are actually tired of pumping money in a nation which is perceived to be ungrateful and untrustworthy. Its double dealings exposed in the Wikipedia leaks have only reinforced this perception.
Over 20 million people have been affected and over 500,000 rendered homeless. 1.4 million acres of agricultural land has been destroyed and almost one fifth of the country (an area the size of UK) has been submerged under water.
There are also fears, and very legitimate ones, that the money will be siphoned off by politicians and bureaucrats as had been done during the 2005 earthquake. For a nation, whose economy is so fragile, this additional financial burden could just break it.
The limited aid that has come is largely from the “Devil”, (as per most Pakistanis) the USA (which provided $90 million is addition to the $ 7.5 billion long term aid package they had announced earlier). India contributed $ 5 million initially which was accepted with a show of much dithering. In fact, Indian aid has outstripped France ($1.5 million), Germany ($2.4 million), Italy ($ 1.8 million) Netherlands ($1.3 million) and a host of other nations. Even Saudi Arabia and the Arab nations have been a little tight with their purse-strings, which reflect the growing distrust of Pakistan’s organization and its image as a nation.
In the West the perception is that the aid is essential not only on humanitarian grounds, but to help keep Pakistan afloat as a nation and prevent it from collapsing completely or be taken over by Islamic fundamentalists who are now presented a situation that is ripe for exploitation.