Nearly a month after Pakistan’s worst ever natural disaster flooded a fifth of the country and hit 20 million people, the spectres of social unrest and extremism are stalking the nation.
While the international community has now donated almost 500 million dollars, domestic anger is mounting at the civilian government, which has staggered from crisis to crisis in the 30 months since its election.
Concerns have been widely raised that in the long term, hardline Islamic charities, which are exploiting the aid vacuum to provide welfare, could mirror patterns in Lebanon with Hezbollah and in the Gaza Strip with Hamas.
“People will say religious groups deliver, the state does not, so the power of the mosque and of the madrassa will get stronger,” said Bengali.
Zardari warned last week, after witnessing anger first hand from flood survivors in Punjab, that “negative forces” could exploit the tragedy.
“They would take babies who become orphans and then put them in their own camps, train them as the terrorists of tomorrow,” he said.
Flood survivors camping out in miserable conditions- up to six million of them still without shelter- have staged angry, if isolated, protests against the government, shutting main highways and forcing police to mobilise.
Devastation to farmland and transport links mean that food prices have rocketed, fanning frustration among the masses already struggling to make ends meet and discontent among millions who have lost everything.
In Muzaffargarh, one of the worst-affected districts of southern Punjab- a region notorious as a Taliban recruiting ground- officials openly admit it is beyond their capability to reach out to the 2.5 million local victims.
“People are blocking roads, looting food trucks and protesting for not getting relief,” said Jamshaid Dasti, a local MP from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by the hugely unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari.
“The situation could get out of control at some point.”
In the southern province of Sindh, where flooding has ravaged valuable rice and cotton crops and killed livestock,Qaiser Bengali, an advisor to the chief minister, acknowledged the dangers.
“There is a great social risk. Food prices are really high, lots of crops have been destroyed and lots of cattle died, so if we don’t pay attention to these issues, there will be huge demonstrations,” he said.
“Pakistan is so fragile that the government can be threatened as soon as there is social unrest. It’s less a matter of the government than a matter of stability of the state.”
Politicking in floods
“Alienation towards the government has increased and in the long run it can create internal instability. The opposition can cash in on that and in the long-term, Islamist militants can benefit,” said analyst Hasan Askari.
“If the opposition joins (in protests), the unrest can be powerful, nobody knows what can happen,” said Askari.
So far opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party have yet to agitate en masse against the government.
As the PML-N heads the government in Punjab, Pakistan’s breadbasket, its most heavily populated province and one of the worst hit areas, some observers believe the mainstream opposition could also come unstuck over the disaster.
However, according to a report on dawn.com, the commission proposed by Nawaz Sharif to mobilise resources for relief work and monitor expenditures could not be constituted as provinces refused to contribute 30 per cent of the budget for their Annual Development Programmes to it, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani disclosed on Saturday.
“Now I have decided to form a 10-member council to oversee the collection and judicious spending of the flood aid. I have asked the provinces to propose some names while I intend to make some proposals, too. It will be headed by a person from civil society,” PM Gilani told a group of journalists at his resident.
Donations and loans
The International Monetary Fund said it would meet Pakistani officials in Washington this week to discuss the impact of the floods, which have devastated the country’s southern agricultural breadbasket and its textiles industry.
Pakistan may reportedly ask the IMF to ease the terms of a $10billion loan, which since 2008 has helped to prop up the enfeebled economy.
“It is very likely that the need for donations will strongly increase because… the number of people in need of immediate humanitarian aid has risen from six to eight million,” Maurizio Giuliano, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Islamabad, told AFP.
The UN has increased its initial estimate of the number of people without shelter from two million to six million, he added.
“We have more than doubled the rate at which we are delivering relief but, since August 11, the number of people who need emergency shelter has undoubtedly more than tripled. We are in a race against time.”
The UN World Food Programme said it urgently needed helicopters to get food to millions of flood victims who remain cut off by the high waters, although weather forecasters say the monsoon systems are easing off.
The WFP warned that the floods have killed or are threatening millions of livestock, and launched an urgent appeal for animal feed.