After Pakistan’s Floods

Commentary | September 03, 2010

Pakistan’s recent floods have left eight million dependent on aid for survival. The Pakistani government has confirmed that 1,600 people are dead and 2,366 injured, and the country’s disaster agency fears there may well be a “significant rise” in the death toll as waters recede and the numbers of missing are counted. For the flood’s survivors, staying alive and healthy is a challenge. In areas where food is scarce, crowds scuffle at the rare sight of a relief vehicle, leaving women and children vulnerable to stampede and injury. Elsewhere, survivors are exposed to epidemics by a lack of clean drinking water and the presence of huge pools of stagnant water, which breed disease. U.N. officials estimate that 72,000 severely mal-nutritioned children are at high risk of dying. Pakistani officials warn that millions of people face disease and food shortage.

So far, international aid has been directly largely at the crucial task of helping the flood’s victims survive from day to day. But as the flood waves recede, we must recognize that the country faces a tide of unfolding challenges. Only by understanding the economic devastation wrought by the floods can we begin to reckon the kind of long-term assistance Pakistan requires for true recovery.

Pakistan’s struggling economy depends heavily on its huge swathes of rich farmland, much of which has been wiped away by the floods. Water has caused damaged to homes of 4.6 million farmers.  More than 100,000 cattle have perished and seven million hectares of agricultural land are submerged. World Bank president Robert Zoellick estimates that crops worth $US1 billion have been destroyed. For a country where agriculture accounts for more than 21 percent of gross domestic product and employs 45 percent of the labor force, the long-term consequences will be dire, writes The Sunday Telegraph’s Nicola Smith, adding: “For farmers the destruction of crops, cattle and land has crippling financial consequences, plunging many into debt and deep poverty.”

Moreover, floods have inflicted widespread damage on infrastructure. In cities, flood waters have destroyed electricity installations, roads and phone lines.  About 1,000 villages in flood-hit districts of southern Punjab are without power. The destruction could set Pakistan back many years (if not decades), further weaken its feeble civilian administration and add to the burdens on its military. More than 5,000 miles of roads and railways have been washed away, along with some 7,000 schools and more than 400 health facilities, according to the The New York Times.

In the past, friends and allies of Pakistan have asked the country to do more to secure its borders; the flood threatens those efforts. “Pakistan's floods have not just devastated the lives of millions of people, they now present an unparalleled national security challenge for the country, the region and the international community,” The Telegraph’s Ahmad Rashid warns. “Lest anyone under-estimate the scale of the disaster, all four of Pakistan's wars with India combined did not cause such damage. It has become clear this week that, unless major aid is forthcoming immediately and international diplomatic effort is applied to improving Pakistan's relations with India, social and ethnic tensions will rise and there will be food riots.”

While extending a temporary lifeline to rescue the victims may help them survive from one crisis to another, assistance facilitating a gradual recovery is necessary to revive the country’s economy. Such a strategy would see Pakistan’s trade partners easing restrictions and raising import quotas. Allowing greater market access for Pakistan’s textile goods in particular would be a significant step, as the textile sector comprises over 50% of the country’s export and about 40% of the its manufacturing jobs. Additionally, countries importing manpower for their service sector should consider recruiting laborers from Pakistan’s flood-hit area as a means to support the affected families. Such measures will ease the pain of losses and facilitate a smooth rehabilitation.

“The international community needs to be ready to support Pakistan in a lasting manner,” states the European Union’s Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton, adding “This will be a significant element for the long-term recovery. A safe, secure, stable and prosperous Pakistan is in the interests of the EU and the wider international community.” Underlining a sense of urgency, Ashton points out: “You have vast parts of Pakistan affected by floods; it’s immensely, strategically significant, and the situation will sadly get worse and worse. There’s a real need to demonstrate the international community as a whole can react.”

Thus, the pressing question is not only how the international community will provide immediate relief for Pakistan’s 20 million affected people, but whether and how it will mobilize resources for their long-term recovery. The nature of the aid Pakistan receives and how it is used will determine if the nation heads towards decades of dependency or towards a path of recovery, revival and sustainability.

 Mr Abbas spoke on BBC Arabic about the costs and consequences of Pakistan's floods and their national and regional implications.