Callous politics add to flood-hit Pakistan’s woes
Where else in the world would you find a country in the midst of a natural catastrophe and its former prime minister agitating in the streets in an attempt to return to power through early elections? The moral depravity of this new class of political leadership in Pakistan is also clear from other astonishing instances of callousness and conspiracy amid the evolving tragedy. But let me first underline the scale of the disaster.
Pakistan has been struck by calamities before, such as the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods, but it has never faced anything like this. Floods triggered by unprecedented rains during the ongoing monsoon season — up to five times more than the 30-year national average — have caused havoc across the country. All four provinces have been affected, 33 million people have been impacted and more than 1,100 have died. A third of the country is under water.
The damage estimated by the National Disaster Management Authority and reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is staggering. Entire crops, herds of livestock, roads and bridges have all been washed away by floods. The hardest-hit province of Sindh, which contributes half of Pakistan’s cereal crops, will not be able to produce any food this year. And, in the 66 districts declared to be “calamity-hit,” a pandemic of waterborne diseases is on the horizon.
The humanitarian situation is expected to worsen as the eighth cycle of monsoon rains is on its way. Currently, the coalition government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, the Sindh and Balochistan governments and local and foreign relief agencies are managing rescue and relief operations. While a proper assessment of the damage done to life and property will take time, the task of rehabilitation and reconstruction ahead seems formidable.
Naturally, in a calamity like this, the nation must come together. Unfortunately, Pakistan is paralyzed by polarized politics. The main opposition party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which was ousted from power in March, is using the crisis as an opportunity to destabilize the government, create dissension in the army and even undermine the economy.
It is no surprise that PTI governments in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are seemingly the least bothered about the plight of people in the flood-hit areas. Consider this: A video that went viral last month showed five brothers standing helplessly atop a stone in the flood water of the river Swat for hours, awaiting rescue by the chief minister’s helicopter, before being swept away by high waves. The harrowing incident sent shock waves across the country.
Party chairman Khan has also held several political rallies to muster public support for early elections amid the galloping disaster, but without showing any affection for its victims. At one such rally last week, a prominent PTI leader even appealed to expatriate Pakistanis not to send any kind of support for the flood victims.
Through demagoguery, Khan has built a cult following among the urban middle class, especially the youth. His team of social media trolls continues to propagate lies and fabrications, keeping the government and state institutions under constant pressure. He accuses the army leadership and American establishment of conspiring to overthrow his regime.
PTI is using the crisis as an opportunity to destabilize the government, create dissension in the army and even undermine the economy.
However, the odds are slowly turning against the PTI leader. His chief of staff was arrested last month for inciting mutiny in the military ranks. The Election Commission has also charged him with unlawfully collecting party funds worth millions of dollars from foreign companies and individuals. The prospect of disqualification from politics in the foreign funding case has made him desperate, even forcing his cohorts to attempt to sabotage the country’s deal with the International Monetary Fund.
Finance Minister Miftah Ismail had spent months negotiating the revival of an extended fund facility worth $1.2 billion, as part of the stalled $7 billion bailout program with the IMF. Its board meeting was due to approve the deal on Sunday. However, in audio leaks that went viral on Monday, PTI’s ex-Finance Minister Shaukat Tareen is heard asking the finance ministers of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to write letters to the federal government ahead of this meeting, stating that the two provincial regimes will dishonor their financial commitments to the IMF due to the financial burden imposed by the floods.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government did write such a letter ahead of the IMF meeting and released it on social media. A senior PTI leader also stated publicly that Punjab would follow suit if the government did not agree to hold elections in September. Luckily, these blackmailing tactics did not succeed. On Monday, the IMF approved the bailout package for Pakistan.
This latest expose of the PTI leadership’s callousness, especially the extent to which it is prepared to go in a bid to regain power, touches the boundaries of treachery. But Khan’s populist politics continues to be a hedge against his accountability by state institutions. He may not return to power, but he will remain a nuisance in politics for some time to come.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has to survive and grow, no matter how acute its internal political challenges are. Its current rulers, which represent a cross section of political forces, can at least draw satisfaction from the fact that the world, and particularly Islamabad’s time-tested allies, have not left their country alone in its darkest hour. Saudi Arabia last week announced that it would invest $1 billion in Pakistan, besides extending its loan facility worth $3 billion. China, Turkey, the UAE and Qatar were also quick to extend the necessary humanitarian support.
Despite meager economic resources, the federal government has earmarked $173 million for rescue and relief operations. But the road to rehabilitation and reconstruction will be long. Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Reform Ahsan Iqbal has measured the tentative cost as above $10 billion. On Tuesday, the UN launched the 2022 Pakistan Floods Response Plan simultaneously in Islamabad and Geneva. The response from the developed world, including the US, UK and EU, has been encouraging.
Under the 2015 Paris climate deal, wealthier nations are supposed to provide $100 billion every year to help poorer states mitigate temperature rises and adapt to the changing climate. Pakistan qualifies for a major chunk of this support as it is the eighth most-vulnerable country in the world to climate change, even though its contribution to global greenhouse gas emission is a mere 0.8 percent. The country saw 173 extreme weather events and suffered an estimated loss of $3.8 billion between 2000 and 2019, largely due to the increased speed of melting of more than 7,000 glaciers in the Himalayas.
The South Asian state has an innate ability to weather the storm. But what it is facing today is the equivalent of a tsunami — a fact the world cannot turn a blind eye to. Therefore, donor fatigue cannot be an excuse in this case.
• Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who has been vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.