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Pakistan Floods: Causes and Consequences

Dr Medha Bisht is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi; and former Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar IDSA.Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 19, 2010

    Diagnosing the right causes is perhaps the first step towards suggesting an appropriate framework of action. As two thousand people are being reported dead and twenty million severely affected, the recent deluge in Pakistan is invariably drawing attention from various quarters. While the pro-dam lobby is advocating the cause of Kalabagh dam, with Shams ul Mulk, former chief of WAPDA, claiming that the dam could have mitigated the impact of the deluge, the United States for its own reasons is strategizing to leverage its aid policy in order to win the hearts and minds of the Pakistanis. The Pakistan Army meanwhile has stepped up relief and rehabilitation programmes with great visibility and political gimmick. However, even as the floods in Pakistan continue to leave its disaster footprint every day, the causes which contributed to these ravaging floods need to be addressed by the Pakistani establishment.

    What caused floods in Pakistan? While some hold monsoon patterns and heavy rainfall responsible for flash floods, others consider climate change, dams and deforestation as playing the trigger for the floods. Between these vying explanations the facts available on the existing timber mafia in Pakistan are the most telling. According to a story featured in Al Jazeera English (August 8, 2010), the provincial head of the National Disaster Management Authority has been quoted as saying that denudation is one of the main reasons for aggravating the floods as only 5.2 per cent of land in Pakistan is covered by forests. A local organisation, Sarhad Awami Forestry Ittehad (SAFI), has claimed that in parts of Malakand Agency, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, “more than 70 percent of forests were illegally cut down between 2007 and 2009, when Pakistani Taliban controlled the region.” Another report in The Guardian (August 12, 2010) claims that the flooding has been intense in areas where the timber mafia is active. It states that the felled trees stacked in ravines for the purpose of smuggling were dislodged by the force of water, thus sweeping away bridges, people and weakening the dam walls along its way. In fact, according to reports, the timber filled the Tarbela dam reservoir, thus blocking any storage space.

    Down South, Sindh reverberates with a similar story. While the villagers and the local people have been resisting the landlords and the Army from illegal encroachment of land, the state response has been almost flippant. As per the available facts, forests cover only 2.3 per cent of the total land area of Sindh and reports claim that the deteriorating condition of the forests refrain them from contributing to timber, fuel wood or fodder. Reports have been continuously flooding the media that illegal tree cutting has been carried out at a large scale along the canal banks and the riverine forests in Northern Sindh. The timber mafia whose actions often go unchecked due to their links with the political leadership in North Sindh has been accused of disturbing the delicate balance in the eco-system.

    The timber mafia though is just one reminder of the gravity of man’s tinkering with nature. Its uninhibited sustenance in the polity of Pakistan is a strong pointer to the still existing feudal set-up which very much governs Pakistani society. Floods in Pakistan in the coming months could bring these festering contradictions to the fore with some consequence. The resentment would only build up as inequity and disproportionate distribution of resources further increases. This is because one of the most visible impacts of the floods would be seen in the agricultural sector which along with being the backbone of the Pakistani economy also sustains the livelihood of the majority of the rural population. Agriculture employs round 47 per cent of the population and around 60 per cent of the annual national foreign exchange earnings come from this sector alone. The major crops in Pakistan are rice (2.6 million hectares), maize (1 million hectares), jowar (0.3 million hectares) cotton (3 million hectares), wheat (8.6 million hectares), and sugarcane (1 million hectares). Low production of any of the major crops could adversely impact the Pakistani economy especially in terms of balance of payments. If one casts a look at the trail of destruction in Pakistan, the floods have severely impacted Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa which is the main producer of sugarcane and maize, South Punjab which is the main producer of cotton and wheat, and Sindh which is the main producer of cotton and rice.

    Moreover, as resentment towards feudals is very much prevalent in all the four provinces, any lack of outreach by the federal and provincial governments to alleviate the plight of the common men and women might aggravate further anti-state tendencies. The Seraiki movement in South Punjab has often raised voices against the discrimination that the Seraiki belt has been witnessing over the past years. Presence of the Taliban in Sindh and South Punjab are too well known to be reiterated here. The plight of the farmers and the majority of rural population can also be gauged from the land distribution pattern in Pakistan. Peasant eviction in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has given rise to collectives like kisan jirga and Mazdoor Kisan Party. In Punjab, the peasantry is known for its belligerent resistance. The Okara farm dispute in 2003 is a reminder of the seething anger peasants feel against the hegemonic monopolization of land and resources by the Army. Meanwhile, exploitation of Haris in Sindh, who often articulate their demand through Sindh Hari committees, is also a pointer to the iniquitous distribution of resources. Not only around 80 to 85 per cent of land is Sindh is operated by tenants, but also around 1.6 million acres of government land in Kotri barrage and 1.1 million acres in Guddu barrage were allotted to non-sindhis in the 1960s. Thus the peasants of Sindh constituting the majority of population would be facing desperate days as they have no alternative livelihood to bank upon. As some media reports rightly point out, the real problem would start when authorities start to pay compensation and the haris (peasants) would be asked to provide ownership documents, which they obviously do not possess as the land belongs to landlords most of whom have available resources to cope with the disaster.

    According to estimates, the cost of rebuilding flood-hit areas could swell up to USD 15 billion. As the international community joins hand in pumping aid to Pakistan, vulnerability and helplessness, which the people are facing, is only increasing with time. While the World Food Programme states that destruction of wheat and rice could leave almost 6 million people hungry, reports have already started flooding the media on the impending starvation deaths.

    Given that the floods in Pakistan are the worst humanitarian crisis in recent times, dissemination and distribution of aid to the needy population would indeed be a challenge for the government. However, apart from alleviating the material plight of the people, transforming the feudal mindset and operationalising reforms that are much needed to induce fair play and social justice in Pakistani society should be one of the long term priority areas for the civilian government.