By Imtiaz Gul
Since it was established over a week ago, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s Emergency Fund has attracted less than 50,000 dollars in donations. The same goes for a similar fund created a few days ago by chief minister of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province Ameer Haider Hoti. Flood waters are not the only bitter reality currently sweeping across Pakistan; mistrust in political leaders is spreading just as rapidly. President Asif Zardari’s decision to commence a ten-day foreign tour — despite solid warnings of an impending disaster and despite reports of hundreds of deaths — has dealt yet another severe blow to the credibility and commitment of the head of the state.
While private television channels kept flashing ever-mounting casualty figures and destruction stories, the state-run Pakistan TV obediently followed Zardari to Paris and London, sending home images that poured salt in Pakistan’s wounds. Pakistanis were in agony while their leaders were airlifted to a chateau outside Paris. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Gilani, though in Pakistan, only deigned to glance at the plight of the poor masses from a helicopter. Gilani endured much criticism for staging such photo ops.
The KPK chief minister also faced similar public anger and resentment for disappearing for days as the floods marooned hundreds of thousands in the Malakand region. And the sense one gets from the province is that the government machinery in most of the affected areas — KPK, Punjab and Sind — was slow in responding to the crisis. According to reports, many public officials appear utterly clueless, unable to even coordinate the aid that local and foreign NGOs have been bringing in.
The 2005 earthquake, we had hoped, gave Pakistan an opportunity to train and prepare for similar natural disasters in future. Pakistan welcomed the establishment of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA).
But the slow response to the recent Air Blue crash in the Margala hills — practically within walking distance of NDMA headquarters — exposed those agencies’ aura.
Essentially, the floods have exposed both the political leaders’ commitment to the people as well as the state machinery’s capability in times of crisis. Prompt and efficient response, elaborate assessment methodology and transparency are some of the yardsticks that are tested in times of crisis. As the dangerous water deluge sweeps through the plains of Pakistan and about to hit the Arabian Sea in the far south, the governance capability and service delivery will again be on trial when the rehabilitation phase begins.
But must continued skepticism of the political leadership and lack of trust in it really cause us to hold back urgently-needed assistance? Probably not.
The scale of the disaster is simply enormous, with hundreds of thousands of displaced people tenting out in open fields and middle of roads where no dry patch is available.
Nearly 300 key bridges and vital roads have either been partially or totally damaged. Entire business and residential structures along and around the mighty almost 3000 kilometer long Indus or its tributaries have been knocked off by the gushing waters. The unprecedented flood water has submerged millions of acres with cash crops like cotton, corn, sugarcane, and rice from the north to the south. Cotton or cotton-based products, for instance, account for 67 percent of the country’s export earnings.
The 1,800 or so deaths so far may seem small compared to the 222,000 killed by the tsunami in 2004, but the floods have directly or indirectly affected the lives of over 14 million. There will be devastating economic drop-off in the months to come as most of the crops near the Indus delta — central Pakistan — have practically vanished and hundreds of thousands of tons of wheat stock continue to sit soaked in water.
The United Nations may have launched an initial $459 million flood appeal to meet the needs of 560,000 people affected by the overflowing rivers, but the worst of the disaster still awaits: food, vegetable and fuel; shortages, power outages because of closure of water-affected power plants; diminished import incomes because of loss of the near-ready cotton crop. Epidemics like cholera and hepatitis are the next immediate dangers looming over all the inundated areas.
While the World Bank and other international institutions are likely to begin the Post Disaster Damage Assessment in the coming weeks, it would take a massive effort to get food to those faced with starvation.
In order to prevent Pakistanis’ dependence on religiously-motivated charity networks, foreign governments and institutions shall have to move fast to devise mechanisms for effective aid distribution — even if some of this aid is lost at the hands of domestic corruption. We all may have to finesse the issue of accountability in order to help out those in dire straits.