COMMENT: Where lies hope? —Shahzad Chaudhry
The current floods have been the most destructive natural disaster to visit the hapless people as nature shows its wrath on earth, which we men have pillaged with an alacrity that even the gods find difficult to digest
Around twenty million Pakistanis have been devastated by the unprecedented fury of floods in the past two weeks, and the deluge continues. Twenty million is the population of Sri Lanka, and the combined populations of many European nations. The figure of the affectees exceeds the combined numbers that were devastated in the 2004 tsunami, 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and the recent tragic quake in Haiti. A conservative figure of the death till now stands at 2,000, but the waters that cover one-third of Pakistan are yet to reveal what remains shrouded below them. These waters are not stationary; they move at unprecedented rates taking along all that comes in their way — man, machine, home, crop and animal.
This has been the most destructive natural disaster to visit the hapless people as nature shows its wrath on earth, which we men have pillaged with an alacrity that even the gods find difficult to digest. They show their hand, then, in the manner that we witness — helpless, hapless and hopeless. Remember Copenhagen, and many such previous attempts, when the world could not conjure up an agreement or a memorandum to chart a way out of the difficulties and challenges that climate change posed. We are warming up at an unprecedented rate. We are also pillaging, deforesting, and developing urban locales through rural-to-urban mass migration. We are eating up our lands and spewing smoke and fossil waste into the atmosphere at the worst rate ever recorded. Yet, the world leadership cannot agree to an emission cut target where the world could still remain a habitable place.
We know what is El Niño and La Niña; we have the scientific evidence and proven theorems on their generation cycles, and yet, we leave it to our incremental method of treatment, unconcerned with what rate the ailment will virtually eat into our existence. We are unable to change or mend our ways. Those at the receiving end, the poorer and the destitute, bear the brunt of the excesses that we have committed and continue to do in the name of development of those who are privileged. Pakistan drowns, Russia burns.
The floods are widespread in Pakistan, with each of the tributaries of River Indus spewing fury, inundating and washing away crops, livestock, means of communication, power generation facilities, dwellings, means of livelihood, and personal belongings of those who till then were fed by the same rivers. When in their benevolent moods, all these rivers coalesce at mid-point in Pakistan where they add their share of waters, life and hope to the awaiting sand-lands of the lesser endowed Sindh and Balochistan. But when these feeding rivers of Punjab — giants in their own right — deposit their load of fury, the Indus, father of its own children, carries an accumulated load of the same venom. After a bumper wheat crop in 2010, there was a possibility of exporting wheat to others. Afghanistan is virtually fed by Pakistan in terms of its staple needs. But all that is drowned now.
Millions are strewn along these rivers, on the dykes and protective bunds, on islets and high ground, separated by vast swathes of water navigable only by boat, with their lives sustained by helicopters and meagre provisions. Many will perish if they remain unreachable, dying a slow death of neglect and helplessness. The government and its people do what they can, but it is too little, too late.
Two major crops, cotton and sugarcane, have perished with initial estimates of about 30 percent of Pakistan’s entire area of cultivation, and almost all of the cotton-growing belt having been washed away. Pakistan’s economy is sensitive to both crops as cotton is the raw ingredient for its main industry, textiles. Although Pakistan’s ongoing predicament with the war on terror has already bedevilled the textile industry into slow growth and closures, it had just begun to pick up, indicating its resilience and well-entrenched position as the natural consequence of Pakistan’s main agricultural resource of cotton. Sugar has been Pakistan’s main commodity of the previous years too, widely used by both rich and poor. Its absence or shortage will hike its selling price to unreachable levels, causing social disruption. Pakistan faced the wrath of the people with concomitant implications of law and order when commodities, particularly sugar, saw a disproportionate escalation last year. Serious shortages are sure to follow after a debilitating flood. It will heat the price and create a global run on the commodity. Pakistan’s balance of payments position will further aggravate and IMF targets will become unachievable.
How will it impact the Pakistani economy can only be surmised. Initial estimates suggest a 2-3 percent drop in GDP, adding to the downward pressure on numbers because of a nine-year long war on terror. Add to that an inflationary pressure unrivalled to date because of a huge demand and shortages in supply. Pakistan will have to pay for the curse of the floods. Poverty and deprivation will encompass a much larger number than the affected. Social disorder will magnify the current dilemma of stemming radicalism and extremism. The response to the challenge has been lacklustre, both from outside, as well as within. Social scientists need to study the phenomenon deeper. Is it the hopelessness of this entire experience? What has been the contribution to such despondency by the presence/absence of political leadership? What about its record of abysmal governance? Is there hope at all?
In the current portrait of destruction and devastation, the quickest to come to assistance were the extremist groups, proscribed internationally and nationally. They brought food, water and succour; the international community, civil society and the NGOs are only scratching the surface. When you cede space, someone will fill it — that is the law of nature. If the sentiment following such exposition of neglect and crass apathy is replaced with support for these religious groups, any effort to persuade them otherwise is unlikely to cut any ice with the 20 million dispossessed. That is like making another country an untimely enemy.
Shahzad Chaudhry is a defence and security analystm