The Pakistani government now estimates that 20 million people have been displaced by floods that have left at least 1,600 dead and one-fifth of the country underwater. So great is the devastation and suffering that the situation threatens the nation’s food supply, its economy, and potentially, its political stability.
The Indus River, previously reported to be 15 miles wide at some places, has swelled even further in the past several days, threatening towns and villages in the southern Sindh province and forcing evacuations in areas that had been hosting refugees. Farms in the breadbasket Punjab region are now simply part of the river, their crops destroyed and farmers’ homes nowhere to be found. Many who have fled doubt whether they’ll be able to recognize their land when they return.
Given the extent of devastation, the time it will take to recover and the fact that agriculture is a mainstay of the Pakistani economy, economic impacts are likely to be severe and long lasting.
The United Nations estimates that 6 million Pakistanis lack access to food, water and shelter, and on Saturday confirmed the first case of cholera. Without a dramatic increase in relief efforts and rapid abatement of floodwaters – neither of which appear probable — health officials fear that illness and death due to waterborne disease will rapidly become widespread.
After visiting Pakistan on Sunday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appeared shocked by the devastation. “In the past I have seen scenes of natural disaster around the world, but nothing like this. The scale of this disaster is so large. So many people in so many places in so much need.”
But as harsh as the human and economic toll may be, the greater, long-term fallout may be that the flooding – and the perception that the Pakistani government has been slow to respond — has left an opening for right-wing extremists and radical religious groups to infiltrate the population by way of offering relief. In many areas such groups – including some that are officially banned – have dispatched thousands or tens of thousand of activists who are now leading relief efforts.
Pakistan’s hard-line extremist groups are generally opposed to many of the government’s policies, some having battled with government troops in the past. Most support reconciliation with the Taliban and an end to Pakistan’s cooperation with the United States in the war in Afghanistan. According to US military and diplomatic officials, the presence of militant factions has significantly reduced the ability of the US to bring in desperately needed food, water and medical supplies.
Annual flooding along the Indus River is largely the result of torrential rains that sweep in from the Indian Ocean, and the intensity of monsoons appear to be at least somewhat sensitive to increases in the Ocean’s surface temperature. Whether higher surface temperatures result in more rain being picked up from the Ocean or whether total rainfall is the same, but falls more intensely in a shorter period of time, is a matter of debate among scientists studying the history of the region.
The latest reports, facts, figures and maps pertaining to the flood damage and relief efforts can be found at One Response Pakistan.