Pakistan: the tyranny of tributaries

It has been nearly a month since the floods tore through the Swat valley in the northern part of Pakistan.  The water has begun flowing into the ocean and water levels have begun to fall in most places, but the sheer magnitude of the devastation that has been produced is overwhelming.  And even as the water recedes, new towns in the southern part of Pakistan are under risk of being submerged.  Already the floods are recognized as being worse than the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami that hit India and the earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005 combined.

The numbers reported by the Pakistani state about the extent of the damage barely do justice to the human toll.  Some 1,650 people are dead and another 2,450 are injured.  Upwards of 20 million people are homeless and forced to flee into relief camps where shortages in food, medicine, and clean drinking water have produced new problems.  Children, especially, are at risk since the cramped quarters in the relief camps mean that communicable diseases like chicken pox and the measles are spreading rapidly among children, while the lank of sanitation and nutrition mean that dysentery, diarrhea, and skin lesions are very common.

The World Food Program is warning that Pakistan now suffers from the triple threat of “hunger, homelessness, and desperation,” as a consequence of the flooding and the impact that it has had on the Pakistani economy.[1] The loss of farmland, livestock (the primary savings of most families), seeds, and the entirety of the winter crop will not only mean that thousands will go hungry for the next several months but also that it will be a very long time before they will be able to return to meaningful lives.  Already there are estimates that it may take six months until farmland is suitable for planting crops; that would put next year’s crop in jeopardy as well.

The damage to the infrastructure has been crippling.  Roads, bridges, canals and power stations have all been affected by the flooding.  In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, for instance, chronic illegal deforestation (which functions by hiding logs in ravines in the mountainous areas) meant that when the rains hit, they not only ran down the mountains much faster, but they also carried logs with them into the river, where they collided with bridges and destroyed them.  While much of the media has pointed out the connection between the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan) and the so-called “timber mafia” in the region as a way to blame Islamic militancy for the flooding, they have been reluctant to point out the connections between the “timber mafia” and the civilian bureaucracy, which is more or less bribed into turning a blind eye to the problem.  Deforestation is not news in Pakistan.

What is striking, though, is the way that this natural disaster has been made worse by the social arrangement in Pakistan.  First of all, land is unevenly owned in Pakistan; 64 percent of the farmland is owned by 5% of the population.  As a result poorer farmers and peasants ordinarily own or work on land in areas that are ordinarily prone to flooding.  In the cities, poorer people who are crowded in slums found that their homes were sacrificed in order to save the homes of wealthier residents.  At least one newspaper has called the kind of perverse social organization which threatens the lives of the most vulnerable people in Pakistan a kind of “economic apartheid.”[2]

The reasons that the floods were as bad as they were in Pakistan have to do with the social interests that are connected to the irrigation network in Pakistan.  The Punjab and Sindh were not always agriculturally productive regions, since many parts of those provinces didn’t have regular access to water.  When the British colonized South Asia, they set out to build a large irrigation network along the Indus basin in order to be able to create a class of agriculturists who would be dependent on the colonial government and therefore loyal to their interests.  Many of the people who settled here were also soldiers in the British colonial army.

After independence, those same agriculturalists became important players in the Pakistani state and used their influence to make sure that the irrigation networks fed their lands.  Even when the capacity existed, for instance, for an overhaul of the canals and dams and a rerouting of the Indus in certain places that were prone to flooding, it was deeply resisted by these same agricultural interests who would lose out should their lands no longer be next to the canals or should the canals displace their farms.  As a result, holistic ecological planning in Pakistan has been frustrated by the very social class that relies on regular waterflows through the Indus.  And in the worst irony, the very system that was designed to boost the agricultural output of Pakistan has destroyed the winter crop entirely.

The irrigation network itself is unsustainable.  The canals require embankments, cement and concrete walls that are dug into the land to carry water.  Because of the amount of silt that the Indus carries down from the Himalayas, the embankments actually contribute to the raising of the riverbed, which then means that the embankments have to be raised even higher.  In some places this has meant that the embankments are actually higher than the floodplain, which means that it is impossible for the canals and rivers to drain water to the ocean and pushing water out into the lowlands along the river and making the flooding worse.

The problem is compounded in Pakistan because local lobbies try to protect their immediate interests over the interests of the ecosystem or the economy as a whole, thus preventing any real flood control mechanism from every being built.  For the last several years, for instance, there has been an intense debate inside of Pakistan about the proposed construction of the Kalabagh dam, a hydroelectric dam that would sit near the border of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.  Because there are chronic water shortages throughout Pakistan, the agricultural lobbies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh (the two neighboring provinces) charge that the dam would give Punjab the ability to steal water for itself and deprive the other provinces of irrigation.

There are other ecological considerations at work here, too.  Agricultural interests in Sindh, for instance, requires that there be a certain regular amount of water flowing through the Indus throughout the year to prevent seawater from entering into the river stream and making arable land unusable because of high rates of salinity.  Dams in the Punjab, then, would mean that Sindh would have no ability to ensure the necessary flow of water in the lower riparian areas of the Indus.  Meanwhile, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, agriculturalists there charge that the construction of flood control mechanisms along the Indus will flood and submerge land upriver.  Neither of these groups is wrong, since Punjabi dominance in Pakistani politics would mean that development or compensation to offset the costs to losing interest groups will not be forthcoming.

Added to this is the strange manner in which geopolitical conflicts affect rivers.  After the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Indus basin was literally divided, with certain rivers originating in India and others in Pakistan.  That meant that India could (and did) use control over river flows as a weapon in its rivalry with Pakistan, regulating the flow of the rivers by constructing dams on its side of the border.  This has not only meant intense bickering at any number of peace talks between the two nations, but also produces the absurd problem of trying to manage the ecology of the river basin without any real control over the infrastructure.  Rumors were flying, for instance, that the flooding this year was in part due to Indian opening the dams on its side.

After the UN made its appeal to the international community for 459 million dollars, some 70% of that figure has been pledged.  It bears underlining, though, that this amount is only a drop in the bucket compared to what Pakistan will need to rebuild, with official estimates at more than 40 billion dollars, or what it will need to rehabilitate all those people who have been displaced.

And because aid has been trickling in slowly, people have become increasingly desperate.  Riots have broken out in relief camps and people have stormed aid vehicles in the hopes of getting what little relief they can.  The problem is made worse because there are reports everywhere that aid is being delivered to certain regions ahead of others because of political interests.  The fact that much needed aid and relief has yet to arrive has compounded the corrupt practices of the Pakistani state.

There are a few reasons why aid has been so slow in coming to Pakistan.  While most of the media has manufactured a new psychological ailment called “donor fatigue” (which flies in the face of the massive generosity from ordinary people across the world), the more likely reason has to do with American military and political objectives in the region.  As a result of the war in Afghanistan, all discussions about aid to Pakistan are thoroughly politicized, as most establishment figures hold the country responsible for the continued success of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Added to this is a growing climate of Islamophobia in the United States and in Europe that have contributed to the notion that Pakistan is merely a hotbed for terrorist activity.

Both of these ideas in concert have contributed to the paranoia that Islam is on the rise in Pakistan and that providing aid to the country will simply mean that money gets channeled into the hands of unsavory people and organizations.  The hypocrisy of the matter couldn’t be clearer when one remembers that the United States happily funded military dictators in Pakistan and cherry-picked the current civilian leadership in the country.  The Americans haven’t even stopped the drone attacks which have pounded the border region with Afghanistan almost every day since the flooding began.  Now ordinary Pakistanis are caught between a corrupt civilian government and the American War on Terror.

The other major problem is that much of the aid that will come into Pakistan will be in the form of loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both of which have offered multi-billion dollar emergency loan packages to Pakistan.  While the immediate injection of cash may help, in the long-term it has the effect of enriching the elite in Pakistan (who ensure that the aid goes into their pockets) while sidling ordinary Pakistanis with an insurmountable debt burden that is paid either in the form of higher taxes or in services that are eliminated.  Already Pakistan owes some 50-55 billion dollars to international lending institutions and pays 3 billion dollars annually to service its debt obligation (three times more than it pays on health care, for instance).

The delayed, lackluster, and sometimes even criminal response of the Pakistani civilian government in reacting to the flooding has meant that the largest beneficiary of the crisis in Pakistan has been the military.  Because Pakistan has spent the last 60 years building up its armed forces and their resources at the expense of its social services and infrastructure, the military is one of the few institutions capable of dealing with the scope and scale of the problem produced by the flooding.  So instead of having the capacity to manage the relief efforts effectively, the civilian bureaucracy is more or less ceding control and authority to the military forces in Pakistan, who were not only able to arrive quickly on the scene but have also helped airlift villagers out of flood-ravaged areas.

In fact, the flooding may have entirely rehabilitated the military’s image, which had been less than positive after the reign of President General Pervez Musharraf.  As Newsweek reports, ‘Three years ago, when Kayani took over the armed forces, the institution was widely discredited and even reviled after Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s long and controversial rule. Now, says Ayaz Amir, an opposition member of Parliament, Kayani’s leadership has already improved the military’s popularity substantially, and the general could soon “look so tall that a military takeover will remain just a formality.”’[3] It doesn’t hurt that the major television channels are running a constant loop of footage, set to the national anthem, showing army personnel rescuing women and children, delivering medicine, and guarding weakened dams and bridges.  Some are already calling for a return to military rule.

It’s unclear still how this will play out in Pakistani society.  A few things are likely, though.  First, anger at the current government is already apparent as flood victims have been staging protests at relief camps and in front of aid convoys demanding help immediately.  Anger will only increase as the relief effort taxes the ability of the state to deliver on what is necessary.  President Asif Ali Zardari’s popularity is well below 20%; he’s also been the victim of a rather public shoe-throwing incident.

Second, the Islamists could very well be the beneficiaries of the anger that is rising against the Americans and the civilian government.  It’s unclear just how extensive their reach in the relief efforts is, but it is entirely possible that they will have an explanation for the current crisis which will speak to ordinary Pakistanis, especially since the left in Pakistan is still relatively small.

Still, there are important organizing efforts that are being undertaken by the Pakistani left, including an attempt to demand that the government stop paying back its international debt.  Several leftist parties and NGOs held a joint press conference in Islamabad to announce an initiative against debt repayments and an end to aid in the forms of loans. [4] Political initiatives like this will hopefully give the left in Pakistan an audience and a demand to organize the anger that exists amongst those most affected by the flooding.

But what the flooding reveals more than anything else is that nothing short of a total social reorganization of the region will prevent this tragedy from being repeated.  It is only when all of South Asia is organized to meet the needs of the people who live there rather than the short-term interests of the rulers that cataclysmic events like the floods can be avoided.


[1] http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/09/01-1

[2] http://gulfnews.com/opinions/columnists/pakistan-s-economic-apartheid-1.675810

[3] Newsweek, August 30, 2010,  Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai, “Pakistani Generals Take Charge Again,” http://www.lexisnexis.com/lnacui2api/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T10021813197&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T10021813166&cisb=22_T10021813165&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=5774&docNo=8

[4] http://laborpakistan.org/news65.htm

One thought on “Pakistan: the tyranny of tributaries

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Pakistan: the tyranny of tributaries « New Red Indian -- Topsy.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s