Pakistan's Flooded Fault Lines


Although the monsoonal floods that ravaged Pakistan this rainy season are over, the humanitarian disaster still requires urgent attention. Just over 20 million people have been made homeless by the floods in Pakistan, a number equal to the entire population of Australia.

Yet the UN says it has only received half the immediate aid necessary to prevent starvation, malnutrition and the spread of disease on an epidemic scale.

Images of mostly rural and regional Pakistanis streaming from of the country’s flood ravaged breadbaskets have largely disappeared from our newspapers and television screens. But even those images presented only a limited account of the latest tragedy to befall Pakistan, a nation whose challenges and contradictions appear so stark that its continued existence warrants epic tales of joy and sadness, life and death.

Like any nation, Pakistan’s story is one of division along religious, ethnic and socioeconomic faultlines. When the floods began to overwhelm the country in July, the waters appeared to pour into these faultlines as though merely to confirm their existence.

In that regard, the floods in Pakistan were not unique. Disaster is often the measure of a society. When the United States was engulfing itself in an imperial occupation of Iraq, the failure to prepare for and cope with Hurricane Katrina rudely brought into question the very model of the society Bush claimed to be exporting to the Middle East.

Pakistan is no different — but the scale of the floods is far greater than Katrina and, being a developing nation, its capacity to cope far less. The floods brought to light — or, "flushed", in the words of author Nadeem Aslam — the forgotten mass of rural and regional Pakistan, a diversity of neglected communities who have remained largely invisible to the urban centres and much of the feudal elite who, although originating in the earthy soil of interior Pakistan, now mostly live in Karachi, Lahore and other big cities.

The people of rural and regional Pakistan were already struggling to survive before the floods. Aged beyond their years, impossibly thin and darkened by a lifetime of toil under our unforgiving sun, the children of the floods amassed wherever they could, displaying the same determination that has enabled them to keep labouring for the nation, albeit with little or no recognition for their efforts.

There is in Pakistan a certain type of attitude towards the immediate that breeds a quixotic form of confidence. This attitude confounds foreign observers, particularly those from the global North. In Yiddish this tendency would be called chutzpah. You see this in the apparent calm, if not nonchalance of our leaders in the face of every crisis. President Zardari faced a storm of criticism over his European tour in July when the floods had just commenced, but he carried on with his now familiar, toothy grin. The country could take years to recover from the floods, but our leaders know and expect the international community to subsidise the state they live off into the future. Floods or not, it’s business as usual.

Of course, millions of Pakistanis have rushed to help those affected by the floods, including many of our wealthy and more fortunate citizens. Civil society, both religious and secular, has been at the forefront of relief efforts, as has the Army. But civilian emergency authorities have been widely criticised for their lack of disaster management and being visibly absent as others do the lion share of relief work. Again, the floods have lifted a mirror to another glaring defect in the Pakistan project.

Formal, parliamentary politics have a dubious reputation in Pakistan. Much of that has to do with the failings of mainstream political parties. Each party operates like so many concentric circles revolving around a central individual or family. Like our Army minus the discipline, our political parties are internally authoritarian and ill-equipped to register the political implications of their actions.

In heavily flood affected regions like Muzzafargarh, for example, powerful feudal allies of the provincial Punjab government arranged for their farms to be protected at the expense of everyone else. In collusion with government authorities, they diverted some of the floodwaters away from protection basins onto the farms and villages of poorer communities. Not only was this an act of criminal self-interest, like Zardari’s ill-advised Europe visit, it was bad politics.

But the floods did not just paint our politicians in a bad light. They also challenged our sense of a shared destiny as Pakistanis. Although my investigations could not find any evidence of systematic discrimination against minorities in the relief effort, sporadic reports did indeed emanate from southern Punjab and interior Sindh.

Flood victims continue to be neglected in the province of Balochistan. Some aid groups have been allowed in, but security authorities have mostly prohibited humanitarian access to much of flood affected Balochistan ostensibly because it is too difficult and dangerous to operate there. It is true that the affected regions of Balochistan are remote and there are security risks from bandits and insurgent groups, but what good are our security forces if protecting humanitarian workers from harm comes at the expense of those who urgently need help?

The floods have also played on familiar fears of militant Islamists taking over the country by outdoing government and other civil society humanitarian efforts, especially in the West. Such fears, while a serious hypothetical threat that should not be dismissed outright, have proved to be exaggerated. The Islamists are not at the forefront of relief efforts. True, people are angry at the way they have been left to rot under the mud and sun, and resentment is a key knee jerk of the jihadi. But radical mythologies do not fill bellies.

Only time will tell what the long term repercussions of the floods will be but there can be no doubt that the floods have changed the physical and psychological landscape of Pakistan in ways that will take years to measure. And it is also beyond doubt that, whether under the media spotlight or not, Pakistanis affected by the floods deserve our help in these testing times.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.