Unnatural Disaster

by by Meghna Philip

"We are here at the request of the Government of Pakistan to help them respond to the worst natural disaster in their history.”

Thus began Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s official response to the catastrophic floods in Pakistan, which, over the last two and half months, have affected the lives of close to 20 million people. Her assessment of the floods seems reasonable, given the scope of the disaster: 1.2 million homes washed away entirely, another 5 million damaged; 5000 miles of roads, 7000 schools, and 400 health facilities destroyed; 6 million children currently homeless, and facing cholera, dysentery, and other deadly water-borne diseases; one fifth of the country, a landmass roughly the size of Italy, submerged by the flooding. According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, it is a disaster of a magnitude “the world has never seen.”

But what does it mean to call this disaster “natural”? Some reflections upon Pakistan’s tumultuous political and social history, and the United States’ implications in that history, complicate this notion. In the immediate wake of the flooding, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari left on a ten-day political junket to Europe. It was, in fact, Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani who had the responsibility of overseeing rescue and relief efforts. Nonetheless, international media outlets seized on the symbolic outrage, and Zardari became the figurehead for their portrayal of poor governance in Pakistan.

To focus on Zardari’s absence ignores the larger structural problems of the government, hollowed of its ability to provide for people’s welfare over many decades of military expansion. The government’s disorganized, delayed flood response was contrasted by a strong response from the Pakistani military, which rescued over 100,000 people in the first week of flooding. Under any other democratically-elected Socialist government, the fact that the military were the first respondents to such a domestic disaster would seem strange; but in Pakistan, it is business as usual.

Strategic Interests

Pakistan has spent more than half of its 63-year existence under three separate military dictatorships. The United States has provided significant financial support and weapons to each one of these regimes. Encouraged by the United States, the Pakistani state consistently privileges foreign policy and military imperatives over the livelihoods of its people.

The country’s first military dictatorship, under General Ayub Khan, lasted from 1958-1969. During this early Cold War period, as India took on a position of non-alignment, Pakistan was seen as a vital regional ally against Communist forces in Central Asia. The Eisenhower administration provided over $500 million in military aid to Pakistan to help contain Soviet influence along the USSR’s southwestern frontier.

The second military dictatorship, that of General Zia-ul-Haq, lasted from 1978 to 1988, and coincided with the Soviet Union’s entrance into neighboring Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter began using the Pakistani intelligence agency to funnel military weapons and ammunition to Afghani anti-Communist fighters, the mujahideen, predecessors to today’s Taliban. Pakistan was rewarded a $3.2 billion military aid package over six years in exchange for support of the covert proxy war in Afghanistan.

The most recent wave of American support for the Pakistani military began after 9/11, during the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan became one of President Bush’s leading allies in the War on Terror. Billions of dollars were once again funneled through a corrupt, dictatorial military regime, to reinforce America’s regional interests.

It is no surprise that, when the floods hit, 60% of Pakistan’s budget was going to military expenditure, and about 25% to foreign debt servicing, with 70% of this external debt accrued during military dictatorships. Less than 5% of the state budget was directed toward social development and civil infrastructure. The dangers of this imbalance became all too clear when the rains began.

Climate Corruption

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, was one of the regions hardest hit by the flooding. It served as a major base for supplying the mujahideen during the Cold War, and it has been a major combat zone in the U.S. War on Terror. As a consequence, the region has suffered infrastructural neglect and poor urban planning for decades. Due to lack of flood zoning, buildings were placed right alongside riverbanks. Infill was used to narrow river channels, to allow for shorter, more inexpensive bridge-building projects. Flash floods swiftly wiped out these bridges and buildings, and many of the people within.

According to a recent ClimateWire report, huge levels of unchecked deforestation throughout Central and North Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also contributed to the flood conditions. When Pakistan first gained independence, about 33 percent of the nation was covered in forests; now tree cover has been reduced to 4 percent of its land surface. Runoff of deforested silt has polluted water and significantly raised the levels of riverbeds and reservoirs.

Some of this deforestation is a direct result of the pervasive poverty throughout the region; poor villagers, repeatedly displaced by military occupations and lacking other resources and fuels, have resorted to clearing forests for fuel to cook food and boil water.

However, much of the cutting has been attributed to the “timber mafia,” an ill-defined group of politically (i.e. militarily) connected individuals who have engaged in illegal logging for years. Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, in a recent op-ed for The Guardian, called the mafia “one of the most powerful and ruthless organizations in Pakistan.” Felled trees, hidden in ravines for smuggling, were dislodged during the floods and caused great damage to flood barriers, bridges, and buildings. Activists, journalists, and environmentalists have raised complaints about the timber mafia for years, but the government has had neither the will nor the power to put an end to their activities.

Reports from Pakistani aid workers have fueled rumors of deliberate levee breaks to save the wealthy. In Sindh province, where no deliberate breaching systems exist, levees broke anyway, diverting floodwaters around the agricultural land of wealthy politicians, and sweeping away poor villages.

In these conditions of environmental degradation and willful neglect, the implications of global climate change are inevitably a much greater threat than they would be in more developed parts of the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released a report in January warning that the Himalayan glaciers that feed the Indus River have been melting rapidly, and that they will disappear completely by 2035. The sort of monsoons that fell in Pakistan this August may become much less exceptional in the coming years.

To stem this tide will require a decrease in military spending and a huge investment in Pakistan’s social infrastructure. It will also require the United States and the rest of the international community to recognize the history behind the magnified impact of climate change in this part of the world.

Media Blackout

A Brookings Institute report in late August compared total media coverage of the floods in Pakistan to coverage of the Haiti earthquake ten days after each disaster. The report showed well over 3,000 stories in both print and broadcast media regarding Haiti; versus just 320 broadcast news stories and 730 print stories about Pakistan.

Since the report was printed, media coverage of the disaster has continued to wane, with the floods virtually disappearing from the international spotlight. Instead, the media focus on Pakistan has resumed its practiced lens of war. After a brief respite in August, the C.I.A. vigorously renewed its bombing campaign in Pakistan’s northern mountains in September, part of an effort to cripple the threat of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Headlines on Pakistan soared, in the context of these unmanned drone strikes.

Coverage has also focused on the threat of extremism among the millions who are homeless and hungry, as Islamic organizations have stepped in to provide aid in the absence of a strong governmental response. Some of these organizations, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, are reputed to have ties to extremist militant groups. In a commentary in the International Herald Tribune, Senator John Kerry urged increased international aid to combat potential instability and extremism in the wake of the floods. However, Brown Professor Vazira Zamindar, a specialist on South Asian History, says the fear of flooded areas as hotbeds for militant recruitment is unfounded.

Unlike coverage of Haiti, “there have been virtually no human interest pieces on individual Pakistani people coping with the floods,” said Zamindar in an interview with The Independent. “This human understanding is critically missing. What do these people look like? Are they angry Islamic extremists? No. They are the peasants, the extremely poor. The majority practice mystic Sufi Islam. History tells us that the assumed connection between poverty and extremism is largely unfounded. Just because these people are hungry and deprived, does not mean they will resort to violence. They are simply trying to survive.”

Katrina’s Ghosts

The floods in Pakistan coincided with the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. International reports took up the label “Zardari’s Katrina”, comparing the Pakistani President’s failures to President Bush’s mismanagement of the Louisiana floods. Then, as it has now, a shallow focus on individual failures ignored deeper, more difficult questions of the societal causes underlying such disaster.

Katrina’s floodlines traced clear patterns of historical exploitation along lines of race and class. The hurricane revealed years of willful neglect of dams and flood barriers in New Orleans, as well as the true victims of the nebulous “climate change” threat. The people of New Orleans bristled with anger at the government’s lame response, and the invidious rumors of deliberate dam breaking. A media that had little understanding of the region’s culture and history reacted with distorted depictions of a people desperate and violent.

Government officials consistently referred to it all as simply a “natural disaster.” In the words of filmmaker and New Orleans resident Harry Shearer, “The people of New Orleans lost control of the narrative of their own near destruction.”

It remains to be seen whether Pakistan will suffer from such an erasure. As the world begins to forget, and faceless drones attack a nation already ravaged by man and nature, 20 million histories hang bravely in the balance.

Meghna Philip B’11 is nursing a sore tooth.