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After the Flood

Simon Roughneen, September 2, 2010

As floodwaters slowly recede and the Indus River empties into the Arabian Sea, the full impact of what Pakistan's foreign minister on Wednesday described as the worst humanitarian crisis in the country's history is becoming clearer.

The death toll of just over 1600 is set to rise, with the sad likelihood being that more dead bodies will be found as the waters drain away. Rotting carcasses of hundreds of thousands of drowned livestock will add to the threat of disease, as the river drains into the sea and the dead animals are exposed to the blistering 40 degree heat.

According to official estimates, around 1.2 million homes have been destroyed by the floods and over 17 million Pakistanis have been affected by the disaster. The threat of an epidemic is real, as people move in the searing heat amid vast, often stagnant, floodwaters. Aid workers here have already been reacting with alarm to reports of cholera in northern Sindh Province.

"If there's just one case of cholera, then that can lead to hundreds, if not thousands, given that this is an airborne disease and spreads quickly," says Dr. Wasi Aslam, based at the Railway Hospital in Sukkur.

Over four weeks after the disaster began, thousands of flood survivors and evacuees can be seen on roadsides, still without any tents or shelter. The United Nations says donors have paid around 63 percent of the $459 million needed to fund flood relief over the next three months. However, to date, only a fraction of those who need aid have received it; the evidence can be seen at roadside and in fields all over Sindh. While many are in camps, with tents provided by NGOs or by the Pakistan military, others have nothing. Anger is growing here, with roadblocks and protests emerging in Sukkur and other towns as people grow increasingly disgruntled with the relief effort (or lack thereof).

Outside Garhi Khuda Baksh in Sindh Province, men, women and children lie under upturned beds that have been propped up at an angle with sticks or broken-off tree branches. Those I spoke with understand clearly what the disaster that has befallen their country means.

"We've been set back 30 years," says Fatima, a mother of seven, and one of 12 people seeking shade under a rough-and-ready shelter made from plastic sheeting and bamboo, loosely tied down with rope and a peg on two corners, running diagonally from top-right to bottom-left.

"We had four hours notice to run when the warning was shouted from the mosque. We've had almost four weeks here in the sun since," she says, pointing around the camp, which sits about 20 meters from a contingency flood barrier set up to protect the massive mausoleum in the background, the final resting place of slain former Premier Benazir Bhutto.

Even as the floodwaters drop in the north and center of the country, more towns in the far south continue to be threatened, with the low-lying town of Sujawal submerged on Sunday. Rising waters, as the River Indus slowly empties into the Arabian Sea, threaten the towns of Jati and Choohar Jamali, where official warnings have been issued to residents to evacuate.

Emergency relief operations focus on evacuations, disease prevention, shelter provision and feeding the homeless. However, for the immediate and longer term, the people, aid agencies and the Pakistan government must think about how to rebuild the shattered regions affected by the flood. It will be a mammoth reconstruction task to rebuild and rehabilitate roads, power stations, schools and health facilities.

The damage wrought on the country's agricultural economy means that people will need food aid for months—in some cases well over a year—depending on when planting can be done in the flooded areas once the water is gone. The immediate losses are immense, and will stretch an already indebted economy even more. Pakistan's external debt is set to reach $74 billion by 2014, with annual debt servicing three times the $1 billion spent on healthcare by the government.

According to Pakistan's Food and Agriculture Ministry, the country has lost half a million tons of wheat, 1.6 million tons of rice paddy, 7.6 million tons of sugarcane and 2 to 3 million bales of cotton. An estimated 23 percent of the year's harvest was washed away, including a quarter of the cotton crop, which is a vital input into the country's textile industry.

Three quarters of Pakistan's total exports are comprised of textiles and agriculture, some of which will now have to be imported to meet domestic demand, straining an already weak economy further and draining the public purse just when money is needed for flood rebuilding. The full economic costs and impact will be established in time by the Pakistan government, along with the United Nations and the World Bank. The reality is, however, that the country has been set back years by this disaster, which is far from over as disease and hunger threaten millions.

The government's much-criticized response to the disaster has led to a relative popularity boost for the Army, which has the logistical and heavy-lift capacity to at least be seen to be operating. Simultaneously, jihadist groups are working on flood relief, and may capitalize on the perceived ineptitude in the government to boost their profile and popularity, not least in regions where they were driven out by the Army in recent years. However, their implementation capacity seems to be limited—with a few dozen camps in place, compared with government/military camps numbering almost 3,000, according to officials.

One positive outcome from the disaster could be improved relations between India and Pakistan. This possibility comes after New Delhi upped its initial offer of $5 million in bilateral aid to $25 million—which Islamabad wants routed through U.N. agencies. The aid pledge is set against a background of the decades-old dispute over Kashmir and Indian anger over the 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks, which killed 166 people and were blamed on Lashkar-e-Taiba, an al Qaeda-linked group that is now working on flood relief in Pakistan.

New Delhi's offer was slow in coming—two weeks after the disaster started—and criticism of India has been matched by dismay at Pakistan's slow and apparently grudging acceptance of the offer. The disaster and aid negotiations, might, it is hoped, at least reset India-Pakistan relations to their pre-November 2008 levels. The relief effort would benefit, too, if economic ties were improved sufficiently to allow aid to enter Pakistan from India and to overcome some of the unwieldy logistical and procurement challenges faced by NGOs and international agencies.

This article was originally published by The Diplomat: http://the-diplomat.com/.

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