The flooding of most of the Indus River valley in Pakistan has the makings of a history-altering catastrophe. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 20 million Pakistanis are in dire need, many of them homeless or displaced, others cut off from help by fallen bridges and submerged highways, untold numbers lacking supplies of food and potable water. In the August heat, waterborne disease is a mortal peril, especially to children, 3.5 million of whom are said to be vulnerable. Measured in numbers of people affected, says OCHA spokesman Maurizio Giuliano, “This disaster is worse than the tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake.”

By that yardstick, as the well-known scholar Ahmed Rashid writes, it is also worse than all four of Pakistan’s wars with India and maybe even, as the Pakistani prime minister laments, the 1947 partition. The official death toll stands at 1,600, and will surely rise, as the crises of housing, sickness, hunger and thirst begin to take insidious root. Much of the internal refugee flight is double displacement, as two of the regions worst affected, the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan, are beset with chronic warfare between local guerrillas and the government that has emptied whole villages. Every single bridge in the mountainous Swat district, site of several army offensives against the Pakistan Taliban, has been swept away. Several Afghan refugee camps, as well, have been obliterated, their inhabitants uprooted once more.

The image of President Asif Ali Zardari touring Europe as the floodwaters surged led the global media to dub the disaster “Zardari’s Katrina,” evoking the massive storm that devastated New Orleans and the Gulf coast of the United States while the Bush administration dawdled. Whatever the immediate consequences for Zardari, who is now photographed hauling bags of rice, the muddy torrents of the Indus are a grim reminder of the very manmade imbalances that lie underneath all such calamities.

Unnatural Disaster

Like Katrina, the Pakistan floods are a natural disaster exacerbated by human determination to master nature. The Pakistani government could not have lessened the fury of 2010’s monsoon season any more than the Bush administration could have channeled the fateful hurricane harmlessly out to sea. Already by August 6, one week into the pelting rains, and with several weeks left in the season, the monsoons were judged to be the heaviest by far in Pakistan’s 63-year history. Everyone was caught unawares: In June, the country’s meteorological service had forecast that July-September rainfall would be “normal.”

Scientists are quick to say that no single weather event can be tied to global warming. The planet’s climate is too complex to identify sole causes. But the preponderance of expert opinion does concur that a pattern is underway by which violent storms are becoming more common and that this pattern is unique to the carbon emissions era. There is reason to believe, for instance, that Asian monsoons are becoming more variable and more extreme with the progression of climate change. Many climate scientists predict that, for the most part, the semi-arid zone of Asia to which most of Pakistan belongs will see less and less rain as time goes by. Farmland will be swallowed by desert as irrigation ditches run dry. In a cruel irony, though, the monsoons will not peter out gradually, but will decrease or increase in intensity in variances that will be predictably unpredictable. The 2007 assessment report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says it is “very likely” that “heavy precipitation events” are increasing in number along with the anthropogenic heating of the globe. When it rains, that is to say, it is apt to pour.

More conclusive is the evidence of melting of the Himalayan snow pack, which swells the Indus and other rivers with runoff. In a tempest in a teapot typical of the climate change debate, global warming deniers lambasted the IPCC in January for modifying a statement in the 2007 report suggesting that Himalayan glaciers could vanish by 2035. The real rate of melting is probably not so fast, but the shrinkage of glaciers is an observable fact worldwide. And in Pakistan the possible consequences are similar to monsoons: dramatically less water in the long term, heightened risk of flooding for the time being.

Pakistan, whose rate of automobile ownership is 8 per 1,000 people (as compared to 765 per 1,000 in the US), has contributed almost nothing to the blanket of greenhouse gases warming the earth and the oscillating weather patterns that result. But many Pakistani observers attribute the scale of the flooding and displacement in part to a series of decisions by the Pakistani state –namely, the building of large dams at key points along the course of the Indus. Dams, of course, are the quintessential symbol of modernity in water infrastructure. Seeking to emulate the American civil engineers who made the Californian desert bloom, post-colonial states across the Middle East and Asia hurried to erect taller and taller dams to catch the water that would enable a green revolution in every river basin and churn out electricity to light every city street. Aside from the social dislocation caused by their construction, the dams’ sustainability is now greatly in doubt.

For one thing, dams are subject to the law of unintended consequences. In Egypt, the dams around Aswan eliminated the annual flooding of the Nile, allowing for reliable year-round irrigation and greatly expanded agricultural productivity. But the yearly floods also had a cleansing effect; now rural areas are pocked with stagnant pools where the parasite that causes bilharzia flourishes. In Pakistan, the blockage of the Indus has led to high soil salinity and greater sedimentation upstream, robbing the delta of its richest soil, and in effect raising the riverbed and making swathes of previously dry land part of the floodplain. Dredging and maintenance of dams and barrages is costly and prone to human error and failure of imagination. In New Orleans, the levees broke in part because no one conceived of storm surges as savage and sustained as those hurled ashore by Hurricane Katrina. As Mushtaq Gaadi argues in the August 16 edition of Dawn, the trigger of the flooding in central Pakistan was the breach of an embankment of the Taunsa barrage, roughly halfway from the highlands to the Arabian Sea. Once the embankment was breached, the river rushed around the barrage to cut a new course for itself, inundating an irrigation network and farming region that was supposed to have been made safe by civil engineering prowess. Locals at Taunsa have been warning of dangerously large upstream sediment deposits for years, calling for better flood protection measures, but the state’s refurbishment efforts were inadequate. The widely circulated OCHA map of the flooded Indus basin shows clearly that the hardest-hit areas are behind or adjacent to dams or barrages.

In 2004, the World Bank was tapped for $144 million to rehabilitate the Taunsa barrage, characterized on its website as an “emergency project.” Construction at Taunsa forced the “resettlement” of 160 households and, as Gaadi writes, local activists were frustrated by the Bank’s inattention to upstream problems. The Bank claims that its intercession “may have helped this barrage to withstand” the cascading Indus and plans to proceed with repair or installation of three similar structures in the years ahead. The floods in Pakistan will nonetheless strengthen the Bank’s corps of skeptics of grander ventures, whose costs seem to be greater than the benefits, particularly when viewed through the prism of water management. In part because of Bank reluctance, Turkey has been unable to complete its enormous complex of dams, the GAP project, in southeastern Anatolia. Pakistan, likewise, cannot attract the $12 billion it needs to build the Diamer-Bhasha dam, which, like GAP, is meant to generate hydropower for burgeoning cities and reclaim still more land for irrigation agriculture. It is well-grounded concern for sustainability, and not “the developed world’s kneejerk disfavor of giant dams,” as Steven Solomon writes in August 16 New York Times, that is holding up this mega-project.

Taliban Time

As so often in quasi-natural disasters, the poor and disenfranchised bear the overwhelming brunt of the Pakistan flooding. According to the UN Development Program’s 2009 Human Development Index, 33.4 percent of Pakistanis live in poverty, a proportion slightly higher than that in Rwanda. In ordinary times, in a country of 170 million, 10 percent of people lack access to consistently safe drinking water. Most of the 723,000 homes that have been destroyed or damaged by the floods are those of the rural poor.

Thus far, the worst of the countrywide humanitarian emergency is concentrated in two perennially troubled provinces, the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan. The Northwest Frontier Province, notorious worldwide as fertile ground for radical Islamism and ground zero of President Barack Obama’s Predator drone attacks, has long also been a site of ethnic and class-based unrest. For decades, the most powerful opposition force in the rugged territory was a succession of Pashtun nationalist parties suspected by Islamabad of secessionist tendencies. The Pashtuns have long felt neglected and marginalized — provincial government statistics show a poverty rate 12 percent higher that of Punjab, home of the Pakistani elite — and they have periodically rebelled against the state and the local landed barons (khans) perceived to be in league with it.

For the global media, however, the Northwest Frontier Province is first and foremost a hotbed of Taliban activity. As if waving their arms frantically at a world on summer vacation, several commentators have asserted that the West must help Pakistan because the Taliban are poised to take over. Ahmed Rashid, whose astute histories of South Asian Islamism have lent him great credibility with opinion makers, pitched his cri de coeur in the August 12 Telegraph in precisely that register. If the world does not act, he wrote: “Large parts of the country that are now cut off will be taken over by the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated extremist groups, and governance will collapse. The risk is that Pakistan will become what many have long predicted — a failed state with nuclear weapons, although we are a long way off from that yet.” On cue, NBC led its August 16 evening news broadcast with a brief update on the suffering of Pakistanis followed by a disquisition from reporter Andrea Mitchell on the floods as a “US national security issue.” “This isn’t just a humanitarian crisis half a world away,” said anchorman Brian Williams as he switched gears.

In the New York Times, the aspiring “Al Gore of water” Solomon used the floods to frame his thesis that water stress in Pakistan is a key US security concern. Not only are Islamist agencies setting up relief tents faster than the government and the UN, but the coming shortages of fresh water also threaten to “further destabilize the fractious country, hurting its efforts to root out its resident international terrorists…. The jihadists know how important the issue is: In April 2009, Taliban forces launched an offensive that got within 35 miles of the giant Tarbela Dam, the linchpin of Pakistan’s hydroelectric and irrigation system.” Here Solomon evokes the Taliban campaign that prodded the Pakistani army into launching its counter-attacks in Swat. The Islamist militia also reportedly advanced within an hour’s drive of the Nowshera army cantonments, unleashing a wave of worried op-eds. The dam was hardly mentioned at the time, but Solomon has shown how water infrastructure can be mixed into the collective consciousness, alongside nuclear facilities and military bases, as factors qualifying Pakistan for stepped-up US intervention.

The Charity of Caesar

To date, the Pentagon has limited its involvement in the flood disaster to oversight of helicopter-borne relief and rescue efforts. Once again, the world is confronted with the mind-bending irony that the US military, precisely because it is the most fearsome and lavishly funded war machine in human history, is the only entity capable of the rapid, all-out emergency response that is called for. And the motive is never purely altruistic: As in 2004, when the Navy’s aid to tsunami victims assuaged the American conscience after Abu Ghraib, so the hope will be that sending helicopters to Pakistan will persuade fewer of them to hate us.

The Pakistani government is clamoring for more American blades in the sky and, more importantly, money. The initial US offering of emergency aid was $71 million, an amount that Rashid called “pathetic” (though it remains much larger than what other countries have given). The tranche will probably grow as Washington becomes seized of the security aspects of the matter. On August 16, the World Bank cleared a $900 million loan request from Pakistan, some of which has already purchased rescue boats to reach the tens of thousands who are stranded by downed bridges and washed-out roads. The need remains acute: OCHA says that donors have pledged only 29.7 percent of the funds for which it has appealed. Part of the problem is apparently Pakistan’s “image deficit”; a Care International official told Agence France Presse that donors need to be convinced their gifts will not “go to the hands of the Taliban.” This “image deficit” perhaps explains why the American media has not launched anything close to the earnest publicity and fundraising blitzes that occurred after the tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti.

Pakistan, of course, was targeted for huge infusions of US cash assistance immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The sanctions imposed on Pakistan by the Clinton administration for its nuclear testing were dropped in the blink of an eye, followed by $1.08 billion in aid and debt forgiveness in 2001, and then $3 billion in economic and military assistance over five years beginning in 2005. The thinking then, as now, was partly to fortify the Pakistani state as war raged in neighboring Afghanistan, but also to foster various forms of economic and social development in order to “drain the swamp” that bred Islamist militancy. In this calculus, the average Pakistani is figured to be homo economicus, ready to swear allegiance to whosoever of Caesar or homo islamicus gives him the biggest handout and promises him the most prosperous future. Without dismissing the extent to which Islamist groups have purchased legitimacy through provision of social services, or to which armed jihad supplies jobs for destitute rural youth, this vision of aid misses the importance of politics.

Chiefly, there is the fact that most Pakistanis — urban and rural, educated and illiterate — oppose the US-led “war on terror” of which the aid dollars are a part. The war has claimed numerous civilian victims in the Northwest Frontier Province, not to mention among Pashtuns and other ethnic groups across the Afghan border. It has spurred the coalescence of the Pakistan Taliban, which has enforced rigid forms of Islamic law out of keeping with custom even in these very conservative areas. Pakistan’s enlistment in the “war on terror” is reminiscent of the 1980s, when the junta led by Gen. Zia ul Haq collaborated with the CIA and the Saudis in running the Afghan mujahideen’s insurgency against the Soviets. From this partnership eventually came the Afghan Taliban (and Osama bin Laden), and from Zia’s parallel “Islamization” program came much of the enhanced clout of the Islamist parties to whom many of today’s militants are linked. The Pakistani regime’s interest in this devil’s bargain was not development, but leverage in the existential struggle with India. For the generals who continue to dominate Pakistani governance despite the government’s civilian face, the shadowboxing with India still dictates every move.

As the flood crisis perdures, therefore, the question in the minds of many Pakistanis will be how much of the forthcoming international largesse, however inadequate it may be at the moment, will be used to help the people who need it. In October 2009, President Obama signed into law the bill sponsored by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) authorizing $1.5 billion per year in non-military aid for the next five years. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up with the announcement of an additional $500 million on a visit to Islamabad in July. Of this total $7.5 billion package, significant amounts are earmarked for water-related projects, including two hydroelectric dams near the Afghan border and water treatment facilities.

Meanwhile, the war drones on. On August 14, Pakistani army sources claim that a Predator missile killed 12 Islamist fighters in northern Waziristan.

In Islamabad in July, Clinton acknowledged a “legacy of suspicion” in US-Pakistani relations, a reference to the fact that Washington’s previous interest in Pakistan faded along with Soviet-style communism. She announced the extra aid in an attempt to convince Pakistanis that, this time, they will not be abandoned. But superpowers are not charities: The “stability” of Pakistan, again the subject of much distress among the commentariat due to the floods, is prized for its utility in the pursuit of US strategic goals. Since 2001, the Pentagon has sent upwards of $11 billion to the heirs of Zia ul Haq and, since defense allocations are shrouded in secrecy, the figure is doubtless far higher. Much of this boodle is Foreign Military Financing that, by law, must be spent to buy American-manufactured weaponry. The river of money flowing to Pakistan is intended to float a set of unpopular policies that Washington has no intention of changing and a government that Washington would hate to see genuinely democratized. In the case of the floods, and water management generally, democratization would mean treating the hard-hit citizenry as agents of recovery and reconstruction, whose ideas for repairing the local waterworks, being derived from lived experience, might make more sense than those of the World Bank’s credentialed experts. Instead, it appears that the Pakistani state and international community will treat the flood victims as objects of relief aid. This kind of powerless victimhood leaves few avenues for citizen activism besides protest, some of which has already turned deadly. These realities are integral to the political instability that the West fears will emerge now that disaster has struck.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "Disaster Strikes the Indus River Valley," Middle East Report Online, August 17, 2010.

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