As New Rains Threaten, Flooded Pakistan's Anger Grows

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

A woman surveys the damage to her flooded home in Nowshera, Pakistan, on Aug. 1, 2010

Devastated by the worst floods to hit their country in more than 80 years, Pakistanis are lashing out against their government for failing to mount an effective rescue and relief operation. The aid organization UNICEF says the death toll is at least 1,400, with up to 3 million people affected by the flooding. With tens of thousands still stranded, without sustenance or shelter, anger is being focused on a government perceived to be doing little to alleviate the suffering — or to prevent even more, as new rains are expected. Many survivors are exhibiting symptoms of diarrhea, cholera and other waterborne ailments, conditions that will test the capacity of medical teams in the days ahead.

A common criticism is that there was little advance preparation for natural catastrophes. When the floods hit, only five helicopters could be dispatched to scour the affected areas for rescues. Later, the army stepped in, raising the total fleet to a much needed though still inadequate 30 choppers. And with this number in operation, some helicopters were diverted to transport camera crews to film soldiers plunging into high waters to rescue survivors. "To be sure, the public across the country needs to be kept informed of events in the area," said an editorial in Dawn, the leading English-language daily, "but operating in an underresourced environment requires everything, not least helicopters, as efficiently as possible."

The government's case hasn't been helped by President Asif Ali Zardari's decision to press on with a visit to London, just a week after British Prime Minister David Cameron sparked outrage in Pakistan by accusing the nation of "looking both ways" on exporting terrorism in the region. The ensuing diplomatic row between Islamabad and London has given opponents of the government an opportunity to accuse it of consorting with hostile Western leaders while the country suffers. Hastening to a flood-devastated area this week, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif denounced Zardari's visit while casting himself as a leader with his priorities in order. The powerful military establishment made its displeasure with Cameron's comment plain last week by canceling a scheduled visit to London by its top spy chief.

"Whatever Zardari does is useless. There are thousands stuck all over the Swat Valley. There's no food, no medicines, no water. He's relying on the army. But this isn't the army's job. He should be leading rescue efforts," says Min Hajiuddin, 37, a resident of the devastated region.

Though the scale of the disaster could not have been foreseen, the predictions of heavy monsoon rains apparently spurred no action. There are early-flood-warning systems in places that have a history of flooding, but no new systems were installed in vast stretches of the Taliban-infested northwest, where floods are less common and which is now being devastated. Angry residents who managed to wade their way to dry land, clutching their children and whatever possessions they could gather, said they should have been told to evacuate earlier. A simple measure that could have eased their journey would have been a supply of ready lifeboats in different districts. During the disaster, authorities have been able to provide only 170 boats.

This is not the first large-scale disaster that has confronted Pakistan in recent years. In 2009, as the army stepped in to battle Taliban militants who had seized control of the Swat Valley and neighboring districts, nearly 3 million people were displaced, creating the largest refugee crisis since the partition of the Indian subcontinent. And four years earlier, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people. But neither of those tragedies seemed to wake Pakistani authorities to the need to build a robust response to the humanitarian crises that continue to visit it.

Zardari can help himself politically by securing substantial support from the international community. Washington has already committed $10 million and is flying in tens of thousands of meals. London has channeled $8 million through UNICEF. But those sources of aid face stiff competition. As happened during the Swat refugee crisis and the Kashmir earthquake, banned militant groups with charity wings have re-emerged to offer aid, in a bid to win freshly wounded hearts. The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a new name for the charity wing of the Lashkar-e-Toiba militant group that has been blamed for the November 2008 Mumbai massacres, has already been seen operating in various parts of the northwest.

Much of the infrastructure problem stems from a mixture of political disputes and state inefficiency. Pakistan has long needed a number of new dams to address its various water crises. Dependent on the summer melting of Himalayan glaciers for fresh supplies of water, Pakistan needs to store water for use in the winter when supplies are scarce. New dams would alleviate the nation's crippling power shortage, which causes even major cities to plunge into darkness for 12 hours a day. And of course they could help store floodwater that could run off into basins below the dams. But, says television commentator Ayesha Tammy Haq, intending a pun, "when it comes to water, no one in Pakistan gives a dam — that's why they haven't built any." The paucity of dams has been underscored by fears that one of the few in operation, the Warsak dam, is now threatening to burst.

But even with considerable preparation, the scale of nature's wrath would have overwhelmed rescue and relief efforts. "Nobody is doing enough, in the sense that demand is outstripping the response," says Nicki Bennett, a U.N. humanitarian official. "But to be honest, it's the worst rainfall on record. As the water recedes in the next three, four days, we'll get a clearer picture. [The structural damage] could quickly reach the dimensions of the Kashmir earthquake in 2005."