Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, says of the flooding in Pakistan “The world has never seen such a disaster. It’s much beyond anybody’s imagination.”
At least 20 million people have lost their homes, more than 1600 have died, and disease and hunger will claim many, many more lives before all this is over.
The UN has asked the international community for 460 million dollars emergency funds – that’s $23 per displaced person. As of Friday, the UN had only received 230 million.
Pledges of aid to Pakistan are spotty. The US raised its pledge on Friday to 150 million, the UK is at 48.5 million, Canada 33 million and at the far low end of the scale is France at one million, matching that of Afghanistan. India pledged 5 million, perhaps missing a golden opportunity to break down some of the enmity that a greater contribution might have achieved.
This is a far cry from the multi-billions that will be needed to deal with the immediate humanitarian disaster and the rebuilding of homes, agriculture and some semblance of normal life. The famine that will result from losing some of the most productive agricultural land in the region will have severe consequences, not only in Pakistan but in Afghanistan as well.
To put all of this in some perspective, Canada spent one billion just on security for the G20 held in Toronto. In 2009 BP made more profit in two weeks than the UN is trying to raise in emergency aid.
With billions of dollars spent on the war in Afghanistan, we are told to win the hearts and minds of the people, it seems beyond cynical that it’s acceptable to fund a war but not a massive humanitarian mission. If there were one way to tell the Pashtun nation (on both sides of the Af-Pak border) that the objective of the war is not geo-strategic positioning and is actually about the needs of the Pashtuns, this would be the moment. But geo-politics is the objective of the war, and the fate of the Afghan or Pakistani people has very little to do with it.
For decades one corrupt government and military regime after another in Pakistan has been propped up and financed by the Americans – in the name of the cold war and now in the “war on terror”. These governments, amongst other things, were very happy to receive billions of dollars for the military, but put very little into dams and other methods of flood protection.
When they did invest in barrages (large dams) and the canal system, the objective was primarily the interests of the big landlords that wanted to maximize short term agricultural profits – not flood control.
According to Professor Mushtaq Gadi, at Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, “When the World Bank started its rehabilitation project of Taunsa Barrage three years ago, it was meant basically to rehabilitate and repair the whole barrage. And $140 million were allocated. We asked them to pay attention to ecological issues, and especially the issue of this tilt, the position, sedimentation of the barrage, and how the whole ecology of the barrage is going to change, because its channel has been raised up, and now all the low-lying areas are more in the danger of floods.”
“All that has been ignored. Just six months after the rehabilitation project, the barrage failed to hold up the water, and it was breached. So it was, in fact, the failure of Taunsa Barrage that caused such large destruction . . . ”
“These are not only natural floods, but the structures that were created were injurious and badly looked after by the irrigation department–they caused such destruction and worsened the situation”.
Professor Snehal Shingavi at the University of Texas in Austin writes, “The massive dam and canal network that threads through Pakistan was built in the interests of large landowners and big capitalists rather than the people. This meant that infrastructure repair and emergency relief have been extremely lopsided, and organized around preserving the interests of the landed elite rather than around flood prevention.”
“Monsoon rains, after all, happen every year, and there have been more than a dozen major floods in Pakistan since the 1970s. Still, flood control remains inadequate.”
Without doubt, the main responsibility for this disaster falls on the lack of preparations made by the Pakistani elites – supported and facilitated by US policy in the region.
If we in the US and Canada want to change the direction of our miserably failed policies, the starting point is very simple. Stop dealing with this region as an important section of the Grand Chessboard of geo-political rivalry and put the real interests of the Pakistani and Afghan people first. Work with Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s civil society and don’t allow corrupt regimes to use this aid to strengthen their own positions.
The flood is the obvious place for the Western world to tell the people of this region – we are with you, you are us. This could be a game changer.
Let’s not have illusions that our current leaders will take this course on their own. We must speak up and demand they do.