Pakistan’s flood has not receded from large parts of the country, although the world’s media has begun losing interest. For North Americans to better understand what has happened, imagine Lake Superior tipping over, creating a vast river a hundred miles wide and several feet deep moving inexorably south to the Gulf of Mexico, with cities and towns of millions evacuated and unliveable, and farms destroyed in the tens of thousands.
The floods hit the mountainous areas of northwest Pakistan in late July, the sheer force of unprecedented volumes of rain in narrow gorges knocking out dozens of roads and bridges, as well as eliminating whole villages and schools. The flood is just now reaching the Arabian Sea east of Karachi, following the path of the great Indus River, but overflowing its banks leaving the already impoverished towns people, villagers and farm families of the Punjab and Sindh provinces without homes and food, trying desperately to find dryer ground. Fully twenty percent of Pakistan’s farmland is affected, nearly two millions homes have been destroyed, hospitals and schools are gone in the thousands, and as many as eight million people need food. A polio outbreak has been detected in the northwest with fifty cases reported. Public health officials are worried about cholera as well as diarrhea and skin diseases, and food supplies are only assured until the end of September without steadier and more generous support for the World Food Programme.
It is not hard to imagine disaster scenarios. Can we create a positive outcome out of this tragedy ? Less than two thousand have died, which in itself is a tribute to evacuation and relief efforts of the Pakistani government and the international community. The immediate needs of the population are huge, but Pakistan and the world have some basic political decisions to make about how to tackle them.
In addition to more shelter, food, health and sanitation, in amounts far beyond what has been done so far, three very basic issues have to be addressed.
The first is for the Pakistani people and its government. Are they prepared to address the dramatic fiscal incapacity of their own state ? Pakistan is a rich country with tens of millions of deeply impoverished people. It has a huge army whose upkeep literally bleeds the country dry. When the cost of pensions is included, military spending and debt payments take up well over eighty percent of the Pakistani budget. The country spends a pittance on health and education. Its infrastructure, as the flood has demonstrated, is pathetic for a country of its size and potential. It is not a country without means. It remains a country whose middle class is thus far unprepared to pay for what it takes to run the country. Services as basic as water and electricity don’t work because those who can afford to pay more refuse to do so. Tax evasion and avoidance are a way of life. Corruption feeds an elite who send their children to the best private schools and universities in the world. The floods have revealed the dramatic inequalities for the world to see: rural poverty has meant illiteracy and malnutrition at the best of times. It will mean worse after the floods unless Pakistan itself decides to address its problems.
The second question is for the rest of us. Are we prepared to help the people of Pakistan and its government to the extent required, or are we going to let them both flounder, while tut-tutting about terrorism, violence, and corruption ? Supporting democracy means sustaining people, civil institutions, and governments, even when the latter are not as good as they need to be. The risk through the piece is that once again the Pakistani army will emerge as “the saviour of the nation”, and the sixty year effort to sustain democratic institutions will once again be permanently undermined.
Even if that does not happen, the failure by the friends of a democratic Pakistan to respond adequately will be duly noted by the people of Pakistan, as well as by the friends of a jihadi world. Pakistan’s 172 million people are at the centre of the battle between extremism and democracy, and democracy’s failure to respond adequately to the needs of ordinary Pakistanis caught in a disaster not of their own making will be long remembered. On the positive side, if we do the right thing our credibility will be reinforced.
In addition to providing relief we have to put resources in the hands of the people of Pakistan to rebuild their homes as well their country. Markets will work if people have money in their pockets – that has been the lesson of BP and Katrina. It’s no less true for the people of Pakistan.
The third issue is for the UN and its member governments. World opinion greets each disaster as if a nasty surprise. Climate change and the brutality of the natural world clearly mean that large scale disasters are not exceptional events. Planning for them, and responding to them, have to become a much more integral part of what global governance does. Desperate appeals for help, and scrambling around for dollars depend too much on the vagaries of the “worthiness” of the cause. The underfunding of Pakistan’s challenge compared to other disasters is a case in point. There has to be a better way, and the UN budget has to be revamped to ensure a permanent response capacity to tragedies that are, alas, not the exception but the rule.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.