If only it had been a tidal wave. One giant swell that, in a matter of moments, arrived from the Arabian Sea and washed upcountry, into the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains. Such a disaster would have had the flash-bang effect of an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or a hurricane. One violent act of nature. But the floods in Pakistan have been more gradual. And so, despite the destruction, the response has lagged. Western donations to international aid organizations have been modest compared with those received after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The pinprick on the American psyche then was tremendous. Dramatic makeovers tend to draw attention. Call it the emotional manifestation of Newton’s third law.
Some have speculated that donations have suffered because of “Pakistan’s reputation as a haven for the Taliban and al-Qaeda,” as well as “possible corruption.” Both are likely influences. But the nature of a flood may be the clearest explanation. Like investors who stand by while the stock market falls day after day, taking notice only after a 300- or 600-point drop, outsiders feel compelled to care (never mind to act) once they’ve been shocked. Floods, unfortunately, don’t tend to shock.
The summer monsoon arrived in Pakistan on July 27 and dumped as much as 8 inches of rain over three days in northern Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province. Every monsoon is different. Sometimes the rains come only sporadically, a window-rattling thunderstorm every three or four days. Not this summer. By the middle of August, the Indus River, the lifeblood of Pakistan’s agricultural economy, had swollen from a breadth of 1 mile to as wide as 12 miles.
Though the number killed by the floods—fewer than 2,000 people—is small compared with, say, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake that killed 82,000, the scale of this summer’s disaster is without parallel. One-fifth of the country is underwater. Three million people were injured or somehow affected in the 2005 quake; more than 20 million have already been hurt, driven from their homes, or left to watch their livelihoods drown in flood waters. Fall harvests are ruined, and spring crops may be, too, raising the likelihood of food shortages. In mid-August, a report published by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research estimated that highway and railway losses alone would exceed $310 million. And the waters have risen since then.
President Asif Ali Zardari, who hails from the southern province of Sindh, one of the worst-hit areas, spent the first few days of the floods in Europe. His absence—and the government’s lackluster response, according to critics—has raised doubts about the viability of his government, the country, and whether the Taliban and like-minded affiliates could take advantage of the situation. Even Zardari has admitted as much. “All these catastrophes give strength to forces who do not want a state structure,” he said recently in Islamabad. “There is a possibility that the negative forces would exploit the situation.” In fact, it’s more than a possibility. There’s little doubt that militant groups are trying to leverage the disaster to their benefit. A secular, well-educated Pakistani woman I know recently posted on her Facebook page: “Allah isn’t drowning us like rats coz we’re a great, God-fearing nation.” If such things are being said on Facebook, one can only imagine the rhetoric circulating inside some of the refugee camps run by Falah-e-Insaniat, the welfare arm of the banned militant group Lashkar-i-Taiaba.
On Aug. 1, 1971, George Harrison assembled an all-start lineup of musicians—Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Ravi Shankar among them—to play two benefit concerts in Madison Square Garden for citizens of the newly established nation of Bangladesh. They had suffered through a massive cyclone in late 1970 and a civil war in early 1971. Dylan sang, among others, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and they raised $243,418.51 (about $1,302,286 in today’s dollars) for a UNICEF-administered relief fund. Unfortunately, well-founded fears of relief money lining the pockets of crooked politicians in Islamabad and less-well-founded concerns about money reaching fanatic terrorists in South Waziristan, will preclude a similar effort for Pakistan.
But if there’s one positive outcome of the floods, it has been to show the faces of “real” Pakistanis. Most of the 180 million people suffering are not swarthy ministers or bearded Taliban members or mustachioed soldiers. They are hungry and skinny and scared, huddled on spits on high ground, waiting.
Click here to see photos of the Pakistani floods.