The cyclone that broke Pakistan’s back

Published: August 18, 2010
The writer is the Frederick S Pardee Professor of Global
Public Policy at Boston University

The writer is the Frederick S Pardee Professor of Global Public Policy at Boston University [email protected]

It wiped out villages. Destroyed crops. Over 3.6 million people were directly affected. Most estimates suggest that half a million died; some suggest as many as one million perished. Nearly 85 per cent of the area was destroyed. Three months after the catastrophe some 75 per cent of the population was receiving food from relief workers.

It happened in Pakistan. Yet few Pakistanis even know of it by name. Fewer still remember that it eventually contributed to Pakistan’s break-up. The 1970 Cyclone Bhola hit then East Pakistan on November 12, 1970.

Historians tend to agree that although there were many other forces at work, the devastation caused by the cyclone and the widespread view that the government had mismanaged the relief efforts and West Pakistan had generally shown an attitude of neglect, contributed to high levels of anti-West Pakistan feeling, a sweeping victory for the Awami League, and eventually the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

Such, then, are the forces of nature. And such are the forces of history.

As we hear newspaper headlines proclaiming the historic magnitude and devastation wrought by the floods on our plains, it is worth remembering that 40 years ago The New York Times was describing another calamity in Pakistan as the “worst catastrophe of the century”. Much more importantly, we should pay close attention to the lessons of history, and the lessons of nature.

The lesson of how policy mismanagement led to public dissatisfaction and eventually contributed to national dismemberment. Of course, this is not an entirely parallel situation since so much more had already gone wrong in the East Pakistan case — and the cyclone was a contributor to, not the cause, of how history unfolded — but Bhola’s lessons should not be lost on the politicians, policy-makers and people of Pakistan.

There is a reason why disasters require national solidarity. Without it, they can become even more disastrous. Deeply buried fissures in the social fabric can burst forth in volcanic anger. As we look around at the political, policy and citizen response to the current floods, one sees too many who wish to turn disaster into a political opportunity. Those who do would be well advised to remember Bhola. Indeed, we would all be well advised to remember Bhola.

History is not a predictive science. And I do not believe that there is a real parallel between the two situations.

But I do believe that there are important lessons to learn from our own mistakes. For the sake of our present, if not of our past, let us resolve not to make the same mistakes again. Let us not forget what is the real lesson of Bhola in 1970, as of so many other tragedies: dissatisfaction in times of crisis can be a force of agony, and political catastrophe can sometimes grow from seeds sown in natural disaster.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 18th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • rehan
    Aug 18, 2010 - 1:33AM

    Thanks Adil.I for one didn’t know about Bhola.But then maybe we really never thought of East Pakistan as Pakistan…that is why no one is equating this flood with Bhola.But also again,this is no time for Mathematical equations..Recommend

  • Softimage
    Aug 18, 2010 - 2:19AM

    Well Adil may be the Bhola was not bhola as would be asumed by its name but today we are facing a clamity of great magnitude and are omly are worried about the current flood here humans are in an agony whidh is beyond imagination the local and international community is gaining momentum witha snails pace. The people dont know where to go and how to contact what media has shown so far shows the plight of the poor and needy, Those who some how have made to safty are facing some other problems. There are news that instead of ficilitate those distressed are chased away like the one incident which accoured in Karachi. T drug and land mafia elements pointed there guns on them and tried to puish them away. There is no one for there redressal. Recommend

  • Ghausia
    Aug 18, 2010 - 2:27AM

    Very thought provoking article. Like any other nation, Pakistan’s curriculum obviously never includes anything negative about the country, such as detailed teachings of why we lost a part of the country. I specially loved this line;

    Deeply buried fissures in the social fabric can burst forth in volcanic anger.Recommend

  • Zainab Imam
    Aug 18, 2010 - 2:28AM

    Fantastic, fantastic piece. Thank you Adil. For most of my generation, Cyclone Bhola is new information. Recommend

  • Aug 18, 2010 - 2:48AM

    Well said though said many a time before: Even so, we would rather rewrite history rather than learn from itRecommend

  • Gi
    Aug 18, 2010 - 2:58AM

    Really informative. Of course much of history is deliberately kept out of our minds to ensure the angelic sanctity of our revered armed forces and do-no-wrong politicians.

    I can only hope that some lessons from history seep into our rabid government. It has failed so far with the lessons from 2005 earthquake clearly lost on us. Then again same will be the situation with the new generation. Well to be fair to them, history and truth would largely be kept from them!!Recommend

  • ArifQ
    Aug 18, 2010 - 5:47AM

    Very interesting, many thanks Adil Sahib.Recommend

  • Amar
    Aug 18, 2010 - 9:41AM

    Too many generalizations in this. You cant just focus on one aspect and take the rest of the world out of focus.Recommend

  • Atiq Rehman
    Aug 18, 2010 - 11:47AM

    I heard of Bhola as a kid in discussions on the break up of Pakistan, but only in passing. Thank you for reminding us. Sadly, the number of people that can read or understand the glorious quote by Hegel “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. Add to it Santaya’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” and we realize that we’re heading for a disaster bigger than the floodRecommend

  • Farhan Zaheer
    Aug 18, 2010 - 6:44PM

    Adil, the article was really good. Please tell us something how to reduce the sufferings of affectees by improving the irrigation system.Recommend

  • Aug 19, 2010 - 2:47AM


    after b comes c

    forget bhola

    think corruption

    let us hope this will be the final straw!Recommend

  • Ben
    Aug 19, 2010 - 2:10PM

    Believe it or not, this is not just national disaster, it is a National security nightmare. Read more at: link textRecommend

  • Emmy Loew
    Aug 26, 2010 - 2:55AM

    Congratulations for your interesting and touching article. When I was very young I lived in Dhaca, E. Pakistan, and a friend from youth forwarded it to me. I remember floods that occured 46 yrs. ago. Unfortunately it´s either that human beings have short memories, or political interests make sure people don´t remember! Your article, in many ways, can be applied to Venezuela.
    As long as political and personal interests come first, history will not experience changes.Recommend

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