Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Disaster strikes the Indus River valley

Middle East Report Online: The flooding of most of the Indus River valley in Pakistan has the makings of a history-altering catastrophe. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 20 million Pakistanis are in dire need, many of them homeless or displaced, others cut off from help by fallen bridges and submerged highways, untold numbers lacking supplies of food and potable water. In the August heat, waterborne disease is a mortal peril, especially to children, 3.5 million of whom are said to be vulnerable. Measured in numbers of people affected, says OCHA spokesman Maurizio Giuliano, “This disaster is worse than the tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake.”

By that yardstick, as the well-known scholar Ahmed Rashid writes, it is also worse than all four of Pakistan’s wars with India and maybe even, as the Pakistani prime minister laments, the 1947 partition. The official death toll stands at 1,600, and will surely rise, as the crises of housing, sickness, hunger and thirst begin to take insidious root. Much of the internal refugee flight is double displacement, as two of the regions worst affected, the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan, are beset with chronic warfare between local guerrillas and the government that has emptied whole villages. Every single bridge in the mountainous Swat district, site of several army offensives against the Pakistan Taliban, has been swept away. Several Afghan refugee camps, as well, have been obliterated, their inhabitants uprooted once more.

The image of President Asif Ali Zardari touring Europe as the floodwaters surged led the global media to dub the disaster “Zardari’s Katrina,” evoking the massive storm that devastated New Orleans and the Gulf coast of the United States while the Bush administration dawdled. Whatever the immediate consequences for Zardari, who is now photographed hauling bags of rice, the muddy torrents of the Indus are a grim reminder of the very manmade imbalances that lie underneath all such calamities….

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