BU Today

In the World

Pakistan’s Floods: ‘Katrina on Steroids’

Adil Najam says disaster may put fledgling democracy at risk


Flood waters have swamped Pakistan since monsoon rains began falling late last month, leaving many communities underwater or isolated: (above) an aerial view of some of the floods near the city of Multan in Punjab province. UN Photo/Evan Schneider. Navigating a street filled with mud and water in Nowshera in northwest Pakistan (below). UN aid agencies are warning that the risk of waterborne disease outbreaks is very high. UN Photo/WFP/Amjad Jamal

It didn’t happen with the sudden, destructive horror of an earthquake or a tsunami, but the scale of devastation in Pakistan has become flat-out biblical. In what’s being called the worst flooding in Pakistan’s recorded history, one-fifth of the country is now underwater. Since late July, torrential monsoon rains have swelled rivers into lakes and swallowed up homes, bridges, and roads, an epic combination of nature’s wrath and poor human planning. More than 1,500 Pakistanis are dead, and some 6 million are homeless. Millions of acres of cropland are swamped, countless livestock drowned, clean water is scarce, and cholera looms ahead.

Much is at stake for this Muslim nation—at once a nuclear state and a fledgling democracy—and for the world. Ostensibly a partner in America’s war against terrorism, Pakistan’s intelligence service has been accused of assisting insurgents in Afghanistan and undermining peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Many Americans are distrustful of Pakistan. And vice versa. The U.S. government has so far donated more than $90 million in aid, supplies, and equipment such as helicopters and prefabricated bridges, but the American public has been slow to respond.

BU Today caught up with Pakistani native and climate change expert Adil Najam, the Frederick S. Pardee Professor of Global Public Policy and director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, to ask why a timely—and heartfelt—response to this calamity is so critical.

BU Today: How would you help Americans comprehend the epic scale of this disaster?
Think of the Pakistan floods as Katrina on steroids. The numbers are mind-boggling and mind-numbing: 20 million people are affected, which is more than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined; 20 percent of Pakistan’s landmass is now affected. That is greater than the size of all England, all Bangladesh, and some 140 different countries. One out of every nine Pakistanis is affected. The number is greater than the entire population of countries like Sri Lanka, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and over 150 different countries: 6 million are in life-threatening conditions, 3.5 million children are at risk of life-threatening diseases, 2 million need immediate shelter assistance. But the most telling number is that only half a million of these are currently being reached by any relief or assistance.

Did humans play a role in the magnitude of this catastrophe?

The rains are clearly a natural phenomenon. But there is nothing natural about the death and destruction these rains have brought. That is human-manufactured, or at least human-enhanced. Arrogant policies that have disregarded the ecological integrity of the natural systems we depend upon have magnified the fury of the torrents that have been sweeping across Pakistan. Deforestation in the north has robbed nature of its natural barriers, and bad urban planning has made urban streets turn into torrential rivers.

Is climate change partly to blame?
It would be premature to say whether these floods are directly related to climate change or not, but they are a good reminder for all of us of why we should be thinking of climate change. And fast. Whether climate change brings havoc at this horrific scale or not, it will make our climate more unpredictable and uneven. I hope we will learn from what we have been seeing and plan for a more sustainable development in the rebuilding process, and also realize that it is the poorest amongst us—those least responsible for causing it—who will suffer its gravest consequences.

After the Haiti earthquake, many Americans may be suffering from donor fatigue.
While so-called donor fatigue can be understood, “compassion fatigue” cannot. There can be many reasons why we cannot give as generously at one time as we did at another, but there should be no reason why we should not be able to feel the humanity and human pain in such a catastrophe. What is required as much as the donor dollars is just signs of human compassion for this human tragedy. Fatigue cannot be an excuse for that.

Will Pakistan’s democratic progress be affected by this disaster?

One hopes that it will not be affected. But one also fears that the flood could destroy Pakistan’s fragile democracy the same way it has destroyed everything else in its path. This had happened earlier in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) with the 1970 Bhola cyclone. This time, too, you have a very fragile government, very low domestic trust in governance, shaky and undependable international allies, and a confluence of calamities—man-made and natural. These cannot be favorable conditions for the nourishment of democracy even in the best of polities. 

How real is the fear that the Taliban or other extremist groups could swoop in with aid and recruiting materials?
I think the fear is not unreal, but it is overblown. I also find the focus and priority being invested in that fear to be demeaning to the much bigger human concerns that are being ignored. It demonstrates our own preoccupation with the Taliban rather than the real priorities of the people whose lives have been destroyed. If, indeed, the Taliban increase their foothold after this, they will do so not because of what they do, but will do so because of what we do not do. 

What opportunities does this situation open up for U.S.-Pakistan relations?

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is based on mutual distrust. Pakistanis think about the United States exactly what Americans think about Pakistan. Neither has any trust in the other, but both think they need the other. This has been a recipe for disaster, for Pakistan as well as for the United States. This could, indeed, be an opportunity to build real trust and respect. But that trust won’t be built if we respond to this flood only as a strategic opportunity. The way to build that trust is to show real compassion and real humanity. If we do it out of strategic intent only, we will end exactly where we began: at a transactional relationship. If we do it out of real compassion, then maybe, just maybe, we could actually turn this relationship on its head and make it one based on real trust.

Adil Najam is the founder and editor of the popular blog All Things Pakistan and has posted a list of humanitarian agencies
people can donate to the Pakistan relief effort.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


One Comment on Pakistan’s Floods: ‘Katrina on Steroids’

  • World Watchers on 08.26.2010 at 1:30 pm

    Why relief may be slow SAD

    Azam Tariq: “No relief is reaching the affected people, and when the victims are not receiving help, then this horde of foreigners is not acceptable to us at all,” he told The A.P. “When we say something is unacceptable to us one can draw his own conclusion.”

    Yes, we are smart enough to draw our own conclusions. Here they are: The Taliban is willing to let millions die to further Taliban goals. Taliban will take hostage or kill humanitarian aid workers who truly do care about Pakistanis because it shows the Pakistani people that other people from other nations care about them – that is the opposite of the Taliban message. Taliban will accept millions of dollars of foreign aid as long as they can control the resources and flow of goods and money for their own benefit.

    We understand quite clearly.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)