By Faheem Haider
The humanitarian needs of the victims of the floods are urgent and immediately obvious. Clean drinking water, food, shelter, clothing, and medicine to help maintain the dignity and capabilities of the tens of millions of people affected by the raging floods in the Khyber-Pahktankhwa Province. Unfortunately dense fog and a running forecast of heavier rain has stymied the efforts of numerous governments to provide much needed rescue and relief aid to the victims of this terrible deluge. Indeed, the inability of public and private actors has a larger political and social consequence: militant organizations are reaching out the desperate people of the Northwest, thereby undercutting international efforts to build long-standing alliances with the more moderate people of the region. The U.N. updated its estimate of the number affected by this disaster to upwards of 13 million. More than 1 million people have been displaced, while 1,500 or more individuals are dead. Livestock have been destroyed, farmland submerged in polluted water and detritus. However, even though fewer than 2000 people are known to have died, the number of people who require public and private assistance is much higher than the combined number of individuals who needed help after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Some estimates suggest 30,000 to 60,000 people remain stranded in far-flung villages. It is a tall order to get to all these people in record time. It remains to be seen whether the logistical obstacles that serve to explain the government’s slow response can also serve as excuses to the government’s failure to protects its citizens at its time of most dire need. Consider that though many tens of thousands have been rescued and many hundreds of thousands meals have been delivered, the need on the ground has far outstripped the resources available to counter the crying demand. Recent reports suggest that humanitarian groups and charities already on the ground are seen as more effective than government efforts to push into washed-away villages. The U.S. commitment of $40 million in aid and financial assistance has not registered in barren stomachs; the raging waters have pushed back any attempts to reach victims further down river (all of Pakistan stands to be a river). Indeed, the Pakistani government’s military rescue and relief efforts seems to have stalled for the same reason. Taking advantage of this opportunity, Islamist groups already present in the region have reached out to the victims of the floods and have bitingly declared that they were on the ground days before the Pakistani military reached the Northwest.
A recent Associated Press report helps lay out the problem from Pakistan’s perspective: “Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Monday that the floods were a bigger crisis than the 2005 Kashmir earthquake that killed nearly 80,000 people and the army’s operation against the Taliban in the Swat Valley last spring that drove more than 2 million people from their homes.” Reuters has reported that Islamic charities with ties to banned terrorist groups have rushed in to fill the gap left behind by the Pakistani government’s slow response. By reaching out to the victims of the flood, Islamists seem to want to wash away the memory of their harsh crackdown on moderate Muslims in the region. The military’s tardiness thus plays against the government’s assessment of its duties to protect its people against the threat of Islamist co-optation. Consider that groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa, run by the leader of founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group held responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks have fed and clothed thousands of people long before the government were able to reach the victims of the flood. These groups are surely placing bets that if their relief efforts pay off, they will gain a ready supply of recruits, who armed with their spiteful disdain for Islamabad, will fight what they perceive to be an ineffective central government and its international allies. The people affected by the flood have some reason to hold such targeted views. To some extent the government’s explanation cannot excuse its broadly ineffective response to what is surely one of the most urgent public policy crises in Pakistan’s recent history. That ineffective response undercuts any attempt that the U.S. and British governments might make to broaden their international security strategies to contain the growing threat of the migration of militant Islam throughout Pakistan. Hence to cut off the militants’ reach and to bolster the claims of the international humanitarian project, it is very important that politically non-aligned groups help reach the frontiers of the flooding as soon as possible. There are aid groups on the ground that can help. The International Rescue Committee is a leading humanitarian organization that has mobilized its settled infrastructure to help all those left behind by the flood. In country for over 30 years, IRC is singularly able to provide well-arranged, coordinated help in the areas most badly affected by the flood. It has pledged to help provide clean water, shelter and essential supplies to the refugees of the flood.
In the meantime millions of people have been evacuated in the South to make way for the devastation to come, without paying mounting costs in human lives. The price of food is sky rocketing and the mass migration of millions of hungry and desperate people into centrally located, shoddily constructed shelters is the perfect recipe for a public health disaster. The worst is yet to come. One hopes that the government will be better able to respond to that worsening crisis.