The real fallout from Pakistan's flood

Naheed Mustafa on the political and economic repercussions from Pakistan's devastating floods.

The pictures arrive almost daily in my inbox, some professional, some quickly snapped on a cellphone.

They are almost all the same: hands reaching out for a meagre bag of wheat; a lone, scrawny child, wide-eyed and bewildered; water so deep that only the very tops of buildings are visible.

The flooding in Pakistan has been labeled with every kind of adjective — unprecedented, devastating, Biblical, epic, cruel. Some 20 million people — almost two-thirds the population of Canada — are directly affected.

Naheed Mustafa is an award-winning broadcaster and writer living in Toronto. Her documentaries from Canada, Pakistan, Kashmir and Afghanistan have been broadcast on CBC Radio, Radio Netherlands, and World Vision Radio. Her work has also appeared in print and on television.

The Indus River, usually a kilometre across at its widest, now measures up to almost 30 in some places. It has raged along a thousand kilometres, carving up the land, washing away homes and dragging away cattle and crops.

My relatives in Nowshera in Pakistan's northwest were flooded out of their home. They are unsure if they can salvage anything.

Like most people in Pakistan, their money isn't in a savings account, it was invested almost entirely in building their house. Lose the house, you lose everything.

It is difficult to overstate the enormity of the catastrophe here.

Pakistan is a nation of farmers but the agricultural sector has now been almost wiped out.

Harvest season was just around the corner when the rains came. So this season's crops are gone. And probably the next two as well. Sugar cane, cotton, wheat — all finished.

Some estimates put the cost of rejuvenating the agricultural sector at $15 billion. And that can come only after the tonnes of silt deposited by the floodwaters are removed.

Zardari doomed

One of the overarching themes in the news coverage in Pakistan and abroad is that the disaster was compounded by the incompetent response of the Zardari government.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, wearing a cap, talks with flood survivors in Jampur on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2010. He has been saying that Islamic terrorists may exploit the chaos and misery caused by the floods in Pakistan to gain new recruits, remarks echoed by U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who toured some of the worst hit areas alongside the president. (B. K. Bangash/Associated Press)

As Pakistan drowned, President Asif Ali Zardari was touring France and the U.K. He was ostensibly on official business but the daily reports showed him casually dressed in jeans and a sport jacket — no tie — smiling and waving with his children in tow.

Through its actions over the years, the Pakistani government has cultivated an image for itself as corrupt and forever travelling with begging bowl in hand. And certainly that image is one of the reasons foreign aid has been slow to arrive.

So far, less than half of the pledged money has found its way into the country. But the fact is that while the optics of Zardari's overseas jaunt were bad, there was nothing the government could have done.

Plainly, this is a natural disaster of immense proportions and even the most focused official response could not have staved off the devastation.

The immediate aftermath will be handled in much the same way as the massive earthquake of 2005, with a mixture of local and international help from non-governmental organizations, formal international aid, and private citizens doing what they can, person to person.

Still, the anger against the government is increasing day by day. People are frustrated that they are still sleeping on the sides of roads surrounded by their children and belongings. Food and water are scarce; disease is spreading.

Mosharraf Zaidi is a Pakistani columnist who has worked for the development agencies of both the American and British governments. He says there's a growing feeling that the government will not survive the fallout.

"Zardari has become a lighting rod for the entire civilian structure. Whatever life this government had, this is the end. There is no recovery from this."

A challenge to democracy?

But the real issue here isn't just that Zardari — who never polled better than 20 per cent anyway — will be more reviled. It is that there is a real risk people will give up on the civilian system all together.

Pakistan's military is widely perceived to be a more efficient and less corrupt institution than civilian government.

And while no one is talking about a military coup at the moment, the growing disillusionment with the civilian leadership certainly throws into question Pakistan's experiment with democracy.

In the Western press, there has been much hand-wringing over the growing presence of the aid wings of certain militant organizations in the relief effort. But the phenomenon is not new.

These same organizations came out after the last big natural catastrophe, the 2005 earthquake, and delivered aid to people in some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the country.

The Pakistani relationship with these groups is complex and it's simplistic to say that if people accept their help, they will also join their cause.

The greater fear at the moment is connected to Pakistan's long-term economic prospects.

Zaidi says the most recent projections predict Pakistan's economy could contract by up to 10 per cent as a result of the flood. That's a loss of about $17 billion in GDP, a reality, he says, "that is too depressing to contemplate."

There is no way international aid can make that up. Short-term relief is one thing, but over the next little while Pakistan is going to have to reconstruct itself.

Another crossroads

Given the track record of Pakistani governments, it feels naïve to think about best-case scenarios and self-motivated reconstruction.

When the earthquake ravaged Pakistan-administered Kashmir in 2005, governments and individuals opened their hearts and their wallets. The devastation in certain areas was so complete, it was hard to imagine those communities could ever come back to life.

When I went there five months later, towns and villages lay in ruins and families were living in UN-allotted tents. The schools were being run outdoors and people were waiting in long lines for housing reimbursements and rations.

Today, five years later, the town of Balakot is still waiting to be rebuilt and bodies are still being pulled from the rubble in Muzaffarabad at the earthquake's epicentre.

Every few months, it seems that some obscenely violent event in Pakistan heralds the declaration that the country is now at a crossroads of some great geo-political importance.

But those bombings and killings seem like mere blips on the radar in comparison to the deep and wide destruction this flood has wrought.

The Pakistani people are slowly emerging from their shock and the vastness of the task ahead is revealing itself.

An honest assessment is that it is unclear if the nation can gather itself up and move forward, or if its future prospects drowned with its crops.

One thing is certain, though: Without the continued and focused help of the international community, Pakistan and its people will not recover.