The floods in Pakistan have made even the United Kingdom's National Security Council (NSC) hold an emergency meeting chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron. The aim of Aug 12’s meeting was to ramp up support for Pakistan’s flood victims. Similar exceptional activity is reported from other world capitals, including Washington, which has moved men, material, and Marines aboard the USS Peleliu to expand the net of aid to Pakistan. Muslim countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Oman are also in their aid stride. Brazil and other Latin American countries are also chipping in. Even though these efforts are far too little when compared to the scale of the tragedy, these do signal growing international concern about the effects of the floods on Pakistan.
Part of the reason the world is so slow to act is that Islamabad has been sluggish in its response to the expanding trouble in its heartland. The federal cabinet has met only once in an emergency session, and that too on August 4 when the floods were still far away from Sindh. The economic affairs minister, whose home province is now struggling to survive, was away from the country for the first nine days of the deteriorating situation. The information minister spent a week abroad along with President Asif Ali Zardari. And that was because his boss, the president, had turned his visit to the UK and France into an ego trip deciding not to cut them short come hell or high water. He even mobilised his entire party to support whatever useless cause his visit served. Now his paid pen pushers are defending the controversial sojourn through inane pieces published in the international press.
Worse, even after the president's return, there has not been any meeting thus far involving all the federal and provincial stakeholders to chalk out a strategy to deal with the flood aftermath. The reason I say aftermath is because there is nothing that can be done about the gushing waters. A river that has overflowed is like a broken dam. It will empty its bowels before it settles down — that’s the difference between floods and earthquakes. An earthquake gives no warning but plenty of time for a swift rescue. On the contrary, a flood gives fair warning but a very delayed rescue and relief time. Standing water defies attempts to reach the stranded populations because of inaccessibility of the submerged areas, which is what we are witnessing now.
And this happened because the planners who could have put vital preparatory work in place were either out of the country or too lazy to anticipate the coming disaster. They were caught napping when the waters surged. The fear is that similar ill-planning might mar relief efforts when the waters recede. Having missed the small window of opportunity to plan for the flood season, the government is not moving with any noticeable speed or imagination. Islamabad has not produced its own comprehensive initial damage assessment. The one that is being quoted has come from the United Nations. The public has not heard from anyone from the government about the extent of the tragedy that has befallen the homeland. The president, who is industrious in speech-making for political purposes, is mum and the prime minister took two weeks to speak about the calamity. And when he finally spoke, out of a total 36 minutes, only three were dedicated to the floods and a whooping 33 minutes was all self-praise. No wonder the nation is so de-motivated. The water seems to have drowned everything, primarily the government’s ability to plan.
Is there still hope left to make a definitive beginning towards a more determined and intelligent way of handling the enormous task on hand? Yes there is. One step is to gather all the scattered ministers and piece back the federal cabinet. Another is for all chief ministers and the federal officials to meet up and unfurl a national assessment of the requirements of the next phase, so that this nation at least knows what it is dealing with. The nation can live without the prime minister’s boat trips, in which he looks hopelessly out of touch with reality, as long as he has a plan in hand to deal with the country’s battered future.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2010.
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