The South Asia Channel

Playing politics with Pakistan’s flood relief

Playing politics with Pakistan’s flood relief

The scale of the calamitous floods experienced in Pakistan after the monsoonal rains this year has quite clearly been beyond the capacity of an administratively and financially drained state. But instead of concentrating on the flooding itself, the media and political analysts have instead concentrated on revelations made about Pakistan’s apparent double game in Afghanistan and on criticizing the government severely after President Zardari made the politically unwise decision to leave Pakistan after the onset of the flood for a state trip to Europe. The disaster wreaked by the floods has also been analyzed through the lens of terrorism and corruption, rhetoric that is commonly used when talking about Pakistan, taking away the focus from the flood and the vulnerability of Pakistan’s population.

This vulnerability is both physical and institutional. Much of the death and destruction that has ensued since the floods began could have been prevented if the institutions responsible for the provision of security (the Pakistani government and the irrigation department in particular) had responded more effectively to the crisis. An uncritical media has reproduced not only stereotypical depiction of hazards and disasters as natural but, in this particular case, has contributed to vulnerability by creating a particular depiction of Pakistan, its people and government. Furthermore, vulnerability of the Pakistani state needs to be examined at yet another level and that is the dependency of the government on foreign aid and its alliance with the United States for its sustenance.

The lack of capacity and expertise of the Pakistani government was made apparent by the mismanagement of the national disaster and the unsatisfactory response to provide relief to the flood-affected areas. There has been a complete lack of initiative taken by the Pakistani government towards natural disaster management and relief, whether after the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, Cyclone Yemyin in 2007, an earthquake in Ziarat district in Baluchistan in 2008, or the current flooding. The ordinance that had led to the creation of the National Disaster Management Authority had lapsed when the floods occurred. Hence, the government was incapable of launching a coordinated relief effort because provincial and district-level counterparts declared that the federal government should not interfere in provincial matters. On top of this, it is important to recall that Pakistan has one of the world’s most complex irrigation systems, and the irrigation department’s complete ineptitude at managing the flood waters was also the result of years of neglecting the maintenance of irrigational headworks and barrages located on river Indus.

Additionally, Pakistan’s problems with democracy and governance were highlighted through the exposure of its ineffective citizen-state relationship, one primarily based on patronage and clientelism. Political parties in Pakistan have only been active in the electoral context; they have served to aggregate potential winners instead of interests, and politicians tend to buy the support of constituencies through direct compensation during elections (such as through patronage jobs and localized rather than national investment). In the context of the flood it rapidly became obvious that legislators elected to be the conduits for the communication of societal interests to the state were unable to perform this function in the non-electoral context. A common complaint heard in most of the flood-affected areas was that the people had no access to their political representatives or government institutions in their time of need.

The government’s ineffective response also drew attention to the imbalance in between the civil and military spheres in Pakistan. The military as an institution was better organized and equipped to reach the flood-affected areas to carry out rescue and relief efforts. This not only underscored the inability of the civilian government to provide basic social services to the people in times of crisis, but also impacted the popularity ratings of the present government. This decrease in popularity for the government will in turn make it harder for the civilian government to operate in the future, a dangerous situation in a country with a history of military rule.

Finally and most significantly, the growing threat from Taliban and jihadi insurgent groups became obvious in the flood’s aftermath. In the aftermath of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, President Musharraf had encouraged banned jihadi organizations to help in the relief effort. This time the affected areas were even nearer to home and the population again put into close contact, and even at times dependent on, organizations with loyalty to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Accompanying these challenges posed by the flooding are Pakistan’s inefficient economy, ineffective legislature, weakly-institutionalized party system, corruption at every level of government and deep-set ethnic and religious cleavages that have led to a spike in violence in the past few months.

Moving beyond the immediate context of providing relief to flood-affected areas, the big question looming in everyone’s mind is whether the Zardari government will survive the severe criticism it endured in the past few months as a result of its failure to deal with the aforementioned problems.

However, the political problems in Pakistan are so extreme that no opposition political party would rationally consider toppling the government, because it would not want to "clean house" and confront the challenge of state-building and regime survival. It would be more prudent for Pakistan’s opposition parties to simply wait till the next election to defeat Zardari’s enervated and unpopular Pakistan People’s Party. But this further delay in dealing with Pakistan’s problems could worsen an already bad situation, making the hope of a smooth transition to power for the next government even more tenuous.

Mariam Mufti is currently completing her dissertation on elite recruitment and regime dynamics in Pakistan at Johns Hopkins University and is a visiting scholar at the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.