Pakistan has been swamped by the worst floods in living memory. So far over 20,000 villages have been swept away or drowned, 2000 people have lost their lives and over Rs 10 billion worth of assets have been wiped out. Over 2 million people are displaced or stranded across the country, many more than during the earthquake in Kashmir some years ago or the army action against the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan last year. By the time the worst comes to pass in the next week or two, the human and material losses are expected to multiply. The last big floods were in 1992 when over 13000 villages were destroyed and over 1000 people were killed.
A Federal Flood Commission was set up in 1976. It has spent about Rs 90 billion so far on various projects, though it is hard to see its “good work” on the ground. Is this a freak flooding season or should we brace ourselves for more devastating natural disasters in the future and plan accordingly?
Environmentalists have consistently warned that climate change, especially global warming, is increasingly going to grab disaster headlines across the world. Action Plans are needed to cope with this new phenomenon. In our own region, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all have concrete Action Plans that are being implemented more or less. But Pakistan has barely mustered a preliminary report on climate change which has not been imbibed by planners or policy makers. An Action Plan is nowhere on the horizon.
Meanwhile, future doomsday reports predict “water wars” between upper and lower riparian states and countries. Pakistan is now sparring with India over clauses of the Indus Waters Treaty that relate to the building of reservoirs and dams upstream of the rivers that flow into Pakistan even before these clauses have been broken by India. The reason is simple: It is India’s “capacity or ability” to break the Treaty by storing or diverting water – much like India’s “Cold-Start war doctrine – that now counts with Pakistan’s national security establishment and not India’s “intentions” because these can change at any time.
Worse, there is passionate disagreement among the provinces of Pakistan over the need and location of big dams and reservoirs and the distribution of financial, irrigation and power rights that go with them, with the proposed Kalabagh Dam overflowing with provincial hostility and distrust.
The worst, however, is that successive governments have been too mired in their own incompetence and corruption to go ahead even with non-controversial public works. Reservoirs and dams may not eliminate floods forever but they would be a core element of water management – the other climate change elements being depleting forests, eroding top soils, sea level rises, lack of hurricane shelters, rising black carbon emissions – in a country that depends critically on water for survival and growth. When we have water scarcity we risk food shortages; when we have too much water we are swept away by it. In the current situation, if we had built the Munda and Bhasha Dams, Swat and KP would have been largely spared; and if we had built Kalabagh (with consensual design and management procedures), Punjab and Sindh would have been lush with prosperity.
There are three dimensions of the current situation that cry out for comment. First, the lessons of the earthquake tragedy of some years ago seem largely unlearnt. Despite a high profile Disaster Management Force lorded over by a military general, there is no visible public strategy to prevent the loss of lives or even to salvage them with timely intervention in the event of massive flooding.
Second, civilian governments can be let off the hook for not launching long-gestation public sector works because the governments have rarely lasted more than a couple of years, and that too in a state of siege. But two military regimes have lasted two decades in Pakistan’s turbulent history and must bear the brunt of condemnation. Generals Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf did not add a single kilowatt of power or a single major canal or reservoir or dam to the national grid. The tragedy is that US aid was non-existent during civilian regimes and overflowing during military regimes but was wasted on military hardware and disastrous foreign adventures.
Third, two-thirds of Pakistan’s strapped budgets are reserved for the growth and welfare of the military and for foreign debt payments for military hardware bought previously. The tragedy is that Pakistan’s national security doctrine, while paying lip service to the notion of a robust national economy as an integral element of National Power, is unwilling to spare resources for infrastructure in the public interest. That is why Pakistan is woefully inadequate in public health, education and welfare services.
The greatest irony is that in the midst of the worst floods in memory, Pakistanis are racked by the greatest existential threat to their country by religious terrorists borne of the same national security doctrines that have laid civil society, economy and political development low. The hapless government of KP had begged a ceasefire or truce with the Taliban during its hour of natural calamity. In response, the Taliban are bombing and assassinating with impunity.