Could Pakistan’s lack of preparation for ‘unprecedented’ floods trigger unrest in cash-strapped country?
- One National Assembly member said ‘It will take untold years to repair the damage’ caused by the floods
- Scale of humanitarian disaster is set to grow in the months to come unless Pakistan’s government and international donors respond, politicians warned
Politicians, analysts and Pakistan’s creditors are worried the government’s lack of preparation for the climatic catastrophe, which has displaced more than 33 million of the country’s poorest people and destroyed more than a million homes, could spark widespread unrest in the coming months.
“The scale of the disaster is unprecedented,” said Nusrat Javed, a veteran Islamabad-based journalist.
Javed said the Pakistani state is simply “not rich enough to take care” of the millions impacted by the floods “who will feel politically abandoned”.
As the floods recede and Pakistan moves towards rebuilding an area the size of the United Kingdom, the threat of a widespread breakdown of law and order looms large, he said.
“There may well be small-scale insurgencies and the deterioration of public order could spread,” Javed said.
Because of the Pakistani government’s immediate preoccupation with keeping the country afloat, he said “state organs haven’t yet conceived” the socio-economic impacts of the floods.
His concerns were borne out by dozens of marooned flood victims who spoke last week to This Week In Asia in Dera Ghazi Khan (DGK), a central farming district of Pakistan close to the confluence of the River Indus and several of its major tributaries.
Enraged residents across the district complained they did not receive any warning from authorities about the successive flood surges which have hit DGK since July 24, destroying one village after another, along with the crops and livestock which tenant farmers depend on for survival.
They said there was no attempt whatsoever at mass evacuations in the 118 Pakistani districts now under water.
And whatever humanitarian assistance getting through is being delivered haphazardly, only reaching displaced people who have managed to relocate to parts of the national highway network not cut off from the rest of the country, victims said.
Asfandyar Mazari, a 29-year-old tribal chieftain based in Rajanpur, a district south of DGK, said the “scale of loss is greater than the compensation the masses will get”.
Mazari encountered one poor woman, who scrimped and saved for years to accumulate a dowry of 14 clothing outfits and other items for her daughter.
“Her daughter was supposed to celebrate her henna ceremony”, a premarital ritual that involves the application of temporary body art undertaken by brides across South Asia, Mazari said.
“Instead, the flood came that day and swept away her dowry and everything else.”
That is the highest level on the UN body’s emergency list, and means the WHO has mobilised its country and regional offices, and its headquarters to respond to Pakistan’s crisis.
The scale of the humanitarian disaster is set to grow in the months to come unless Pakistan’s government and international donors respond wholeheartedly, politicians warned.
“Unless the government acts now to ensure food security, there will be a nationwide wheat shortage by the end of the year,” said Muhammad Khan Leghari, an opposition member of the National Assembly representing a Dera Ghazi Khan constituency.
Speaking to This Week In Asia during a tour of the inundated district, he said “two and half” out of the three constituencies of the Punjab provincial assembly falling within the bounds of his National Assembly seat in DGK are underwater.
“The rice and cotton crops have been swept away and no other crops can be planted until the waters recede,” Leghari said.
Dozens of villages stretching from the adjacent Koh-i-Suleman mountain range to the densely populated riverine areas of the Indus have been “completely destroyed”, he said.
“It will take untold years to repair the damage,” Leghari added.
With their homes and crops destroyed and livestock killed, flood victims said they need a steady income from the government to feed their families.
Last week, the fund resumed financial assistance to Pakistan under a US$7 billion balance of payments support programme first agreed in 2019, but which had been frozen since March.
The accompanying update on Pakistan’s economy issued by the IMF on Thursday warned high food and fuel prices exacerbated by the removal of government subsidies could trigger protests and political instability, thereby jeopardising Pakistan’s future economic instability.
But the report’s authors did not factor in the enormous devastation wrought by the ongoing floods.
“Marginalised groups, such as people living in poverty are bound to be much worse off,” said Najam Ali, CEO of Next Capital, a Karachi-based financial services firm.
Human casualties, crop and livestock losses, the spread of potentially fatal illnesses, and the widespread destruction of infrastructure are “just a few of the initial impacts” of the floods, he said.