DEVELOPMENT: Coping with the floods —Syed Mohammad Ali
If the donors and the government want to win the support and respect of the masses, and prevent their exploitation by those with militant and myopic agendas, they must think long and hard on how to effectively change the lives of poor people
Amidst the hapless struggling
to cope with conflict, economic woes, the energy crisis, increasing food insecurity and a range of other problems, Pakistan has been hit by another major natural disaster. While not much could have been done to avert the ongoing floods, the on-ground management of this problem is what this article aims to draw attention to.
It is unfortunate that while our country has not yet fully contended with the devastation caused by the 2005 earthquake, another natural disaster has occurred, which is as serious in terms of its impact. Unlike the earthquake, the current floods are not confined to the northern areas.
Quantifying the impact of the worst floods to have hit Pakistan since its independence will take more time, but it is already certain that the adverse effects will be felt on many levels. Almost 12 million may have been directly affected in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone. At the time of writing this article, the Kabul River is still swelling, and the coastal areas have yet to contend with the increased water flows heading their way. What havoc may unleash in Karachi itself is still unknown.
Besides causing massive displacement, the death of many people and serious loss of livestock, there is going to be immense infrastructure damage. Already scant school and health facilities have been submerged across the rural hinterland. The agricultural output for cotton, vegetables, sugarcane and livestock will no doubt be badly affected in the coming year. The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) has been quick to point out that this quarter’s tax collection targets will also not be reached.
Although floods are a recurrent phenomenon, the country is still not adequately prepared for them. Major floods, following heavy rains unleashed by a cyclone, had hit the coastal areas of Pakistan just three years ago at around the same time of year. While those floods were relatively less severe, the damage caused was certainly enough to have given a wake-up call to become better prepared for future disasters. The current havoc unleashed across the country seems to indicate that adequate preparedness was not put in place.
The army is playing a dominant role in the current relief operations, despite the creation of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) after the 2005 earthquake. Other donor-supported initiatives like the National Volunteer Movement are also not prominent.
While army troops have rescued many people, numerous others still seem marooned in flooded areas. The Sindh government also sought army assistance to help fend off possible damages to life and property. Half a million people from at-risk areas have been evacuated. Many of the camps set up for the displaced in southern Punjab, however, had to be moved as waters rose higher than expected.
The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) spokesman has admitted to a lack of resources needed to cope with the situation. Foreign assistance pledges are being made and international and local NGOs are also pitching in.
The US announced it would make an initial contribution of $ 10 million for flood relief activities based on priorities identified by the NDMA. This figure has since gone up to around $ 35 million. Other donors are also pledging help. It remains to be seen how much of this money will materialise, and also how it will be spent.
The authorities are claiming that flood centres will be set up, more rescue teams are to be deployed and that drinking water, food and medical facilities will be made available to all those in need. Whether these promises will be effectively executed will become apparent during the coming days of relief operations.
But the real challenge will not end once the floods subside. Rehabilitation will be a long and arduous process. There is no concept of insurance of houses, businesses, agricultural lands or crops against flooding. Thus, those affected by the current devastation will be left to fend for themselves, especially the already marginalised.
The floods are feared to disrupt ongoing operations against militants, as even the army bases have been flooded. Moreover, there is growing concern that the Islamist charities may gain more public support, as they did after the 2005 earthquake, due to their relief work.
If the donors and the government want to win the support and respect of the masses, and prevent their exploitation by those with militant and myopic agendas, they must think long and hard on how to effectively change the lives of poor people. Unless this is done, the distribution of incoming resources will be subjected to corruption and elite capture, as has been done in the past.
The international donor community and national relief agencies must learn lessons from previous rehabilitation efforts and not repeat the same mistakes. For instance, poor landless farmers should not be compelled to use grants provided to them to rebuild houses on lands not belonging to them, something that led to their re-subjugation by powerful landlords after the 2005 earthquake. The main emphasis of rehabilitation also must not focus on rebuilding infrastructure in politically affluent constituencies. Due attention must be given to traditionally neglected areas where poorer people reside.
While natural disasters do not differentiate between the rich and the poor, the latter always end up suffering the most in times of natural calamities, as they have very little resources to fall back upon. Multitudes of poor households affected by the rising water are now stranded in relief camps with nowhere else to go. If the poor have to struggle to get relief, despite the enormous amounts of aid supposedly allocated for them, and they are not adequately looked after once they get back to their destroyed homes, their anger will understandably grow.
Conversely, if the relief and rehabilitation efforts are targeted effectively to address the concerns of the poorest rather than those of the powerful, the situation on ground may change for the better instead of reverting to the status quo, after the floodwaters have finally receded.
The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at email@example.com