Residents of Sukkar, Pakistan carry what belongings they can as they flee their homes in low-lying areas on Tuesday.
Shakil Adil/AP Photo
It was Pakistan’s Marie Antoinette moment: President Asif Ali Zardari landing at his 16th century French chateau by helicopter as millions of his countrymen wallowed in the mud, their homes and livelihoods swallowed by Pakistan’s worst floods in a half century.
Back home, the tide of outrage at the absent leader swelled along with the rivers. Zardari returned Tuesday to face frustrated citizens who blame his government for what they see as inaction and incompetence, while 14 million people are still waiting for aid as the disaster unfolds.
For Zardari’s government, and Western countries that depend on Pakistan to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the political undertow is also perilous. Militant groups have outstripped the government or army in rescue efforts, scoring points with flood victims. Meanwhile, as the water makes its relentless way southward, the danger of instability grows.
On Tuesday, officials in Hyderabad, a city of 1.6 million people, evacuated low-lying areas as the surging Indus River threatened to burst a dam less than 10 kilometres from the city centre. So far, some 1,600 people across the country are known to have died, but there are fears of epidemics as millions are left without clean water or sanitation.
The government’s rescue operation has been slowed by the collapse of bridges and roads, wreckage of the electricity system, shortages of manpower and equipment, along with the relentless rain.
“The flood wave will continue passing down the river, threatening towns and villages,” said Gordon Young, Ontario-based president of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences. “If dams burst it will be much worse. In Pakistan they don’t have the resources to deal with this kind of disaster.”
Zardari’s supporters point out that even the wealthy United States was unable to cope with Hurricane Katrina. But for the unpopular widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and his Pakistan Peoples Party, the government’s perceived failure to rescue the victims could hardly come at a worse time.
The stock market has continued to slide, and the finance ministry announced that economic growth would miss its target, while repayment of a $10.6 billion International Monetary Fund emergency loan plan hangs in the balance. The Punjab province, which supplies much of Pakistan’s food and employment, lost more than 500,000 hectares of agricultural land to the deluge.
“Nobody is prepared for a natural disaster like this, but Pakistan is right off the charts,” said Kamran Bokhari of the global intelligence firm Stratfor. “The economy is teetering near bankruptcy, Karachi is like a war zone, the infrastructure is in ruins, and jihadists are skilfully exploiting the situation.”
As president, Zardari has played a more symbolic than political role, after constitutional changes curtailed his powers last year. But he is the first civilian leader in a decade to rule Pakistan, and his non-military government was greeted as a return to democracy.
Now, analysts say, a crisis of confidence is putting that in doubt.
“The effects of the floods are worse than the earthquake in Haiti, the Asian tsunami and Kashmir earthquake rolled into one,” says Ahmed Rashid, author of Descent into Chaos, on the failure of nation-building in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “The most visible relief is by the army. The fact that the army is present and the government is nowhere to be seen adds to suspicions that the army may step back in.”
Even before the floods, a poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that Pakistanis are in a “grim mood” about the state of the country, dissatisfied with their lives, unhappy with the economy and concerned about political corruption and crime. Only 20 per cent have a positive view of Zardari — down from 64 per cent just two years ago. But 61 per cent approve of army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and 84 per cent said the military is having a “good impact” on the country.
At the same time, negative views of the Taliban and Al Qaeda have lessened slightly, although the militants remain widely unpopular for their ruthless campaign of violence against civilians. But only 35 per cent are negative on the violent militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which recently opened flood relief centres in Punjab, openly flying its black sword-emblazoned flag.
“Lashkar’s aid wing looks very efficient,” says Bruce Riedel, an expert in counterterrorism and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They can mobilize people and move quickly in ways the government can’t.”
And he added, Washington’s $55 million emergency aid package — boosted by $20 million Tuesday — has been slowed by buffeting rain. “U.S. helicopters are grounded, but the Islamists have people in the field.”
The floods, Riedel says, have also bogged down the Pakistani military’s battle against the Taliban, who were dug in along the border with Afghanistan. “The rain will make (the army) inclined to say they can’t take on another challenge while putting the country back together.”
The task of reconstruction as well as emergency relief will be vast. “Hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed (for) urgent humanitarian needs and billions . . . for rehabilitation and reconstruction of livelihoods,” the UN special envoy to Pakistan, Jean-Maurice Ripert, said Tuesday.
When the emergency is past, discontent could peak and a political crisis could follow in Pakistan. But most observers believe that, for all its problems, the nuclear-armed country will not melt down into a failed state.
“Pakistan’s problems have multiplied over the decades and become systemic,” says Bokhari. “But there is also an appetite for a new kind of democracy. The media, the judiciary and civil society have played a role and there is an educated middle class. It’s something that the ruling elite have not yet recognized.”