Aug 21, 2010

After the waters recede

Arif Nizami
In the wake of the biggest disaster ever to hit the country, the response, both international and domestic, is dismally wanting. A blame game has started
The spokesperson of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has blamed this on Pakistan's image deficit in the West. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quraishi accused the local media of being too critical of the government and its agencies. "If you yourself raise doubts about your government and its agencies, you would weaken the world confidence," he complained.
With a vibrant media, a fiercely independent judiciary and a flawed but functioning democracy, Pakistan is not exactly a kleptocracy, as some of its critics make it out to be. Admittedly, the present leadership has serious transparency issues. The president being away during the initial phase of the floods did not help the optics.
Mr Quraishi has a point, that we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Nonetheless, the media has a legitimate right to be critical of relief efforts and the conduct of our leaders during one of the most serious crises of our national history.
Critics of the democratic dispensation are having a field day taking pot shots at the government. At the same time they are insinuating that since the army is at the forefront of relief efforts as well as in fund-raising, it will perhaps not be a bad idea to send the politicians packing. These are the very same elements that, holding cushy jobs under him, were apologists of Musharraf's policies.
Mian Nawaz Sharif, perhaps aware that the widespread and unprecedented devastation as a result of the floods could be a game-changer for politics in Pakistan, has adopted a cautious approach. The prime minister readily accepted his suggestion for setting up of a "credible national body comprising men of integrity." The efficacy of the proposed commission should have been seriously examined, instead of foot-dragging after the commitment was made.
Reports of looting of relief goods, rioting and widespread anger being expressed by those desperate for some kind of reprieve should be an eye-opener. A growing sense of alienation between the people and the leaders is becoming obvious by the day. With floods still not over, things could deteriorate into chaos bordering on anarchy with inherent dangers for the democratic system.
For the time being, both the PPP and the PML-N are largely missing from the scene. It is the job description of the armed forces to act in such national emergencies. And they are doing their job rather well. The army chief is visible overseeing relief activities, while army relief camps can be seen everywhere collecting funds and relief goods.
On the other hand, the prime minister has earned the dubious distinction of visiting at least two ghost relief camps. Similarly, Mian Nawaz encountered such a hostile reception when he landed in Mansehra the other day to visit a relief camp that he had to leave in haste. Does this reflect lack of focus on the part of the government and the so-called opposition?
In the aftermath of the UN Plenary Session on floods in Pakistan, and earlier the impassioned appeal by UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon to member-states to donate generously, the pace of the flow of funds for relief and rehabilitation should qualitatively improve.
The US is by far the biggest donor with a commitment of $87million in cash and kind. It has the largest number of helicopters dedicated to crucial relief and evacuation activities. Sadly, China whose economy has overtaken Japan's as the second-largest in the world, has committed merely nine million dollars, which is a pittance compared to the much-maligned UK's contribution of $32 million. Even tiny Denmark (of Danish cartoons fame) has committed 11 million dollars.
Lessons will have to be learnt from the current calamity.
Once the floodwaters have receded the nation will face some long-postponed tough decisions. Obviously the focus will be on rehabilitation, rebuilding and reconstruction. Massive organisation and huge funds will be required for the effort. This will entail belt-tightening by the perennially profligate federal and provincial governments, as well as help from the international community.
According to the Financial Times, the Asian Development Bank has already offered a two-billion-dollar emergency loan to help repair massive damage to infrastructure. It has also set up a trust fund to channel donor contributions for reconstruction.
A massive plan for rebuilding infrastructure will have to be undertaken by our economic managers. However, even before such an initiative is taken, the level of governance and transparency of our state institutions will have to be drastically improved.
The fact that no one in Pakistan was able to predict the looming disaster, despite our living in an age of satellite imagery, is a scandal in itself. It is the job of provincial irrigation departments to gauge floods and predict the timing and enormity of their onset. However, like all other government departments, our flood control mechanism was dormant.
On a macro level, our inability to build large storage dams also exacerbated the present tragedy. Since Mangla Dam built in the 1960s and Tarbela in the early 1970s, no large earth-filled dam has been built. According to experts, the country needs at least 45 million acre feet (MAF) of storage capacity, not only to partly compensate for the three eastern rivers lost to India under the Indus Water Treaty, but also to irrigate more tracts of lands. Presently, on an average 35 MAF river water annually escapes unitised below Kotri, the last barrage on the Indus.
Obviously, if Kalabagh, followed by Diamer-Basha Dam had been built, with their combined aggregate storage capacity of 12 MAF they would have been able to lessen the severity of the present floods. But thanks to the criminal negligence of our successive rulers, civilian as well as military, Kalabagh Dam, despite the project's being ready for construction, was virtually shelved. A seven-member technical committee constituted by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz met President Musharraf and submitted its report in August 2005.
Chaudhry Mazhar Ali, the renowned irrigation expert from Punjab, presented the consensual report. Its members were from all provinces, including former WAPDA chairman Shamsul Malik from the former NWFP. The committee's report recommended simultaneous construction of Kalabagh and Diamer-Basha Dams on the Indus. Of course, Kalabagh would have been built first, since all groundwork for the dam has been ready for years. Musharraf, too busy trying to hold on to power, did not want to touch a controversial project like Kalabagh.
Opponents of Kalabagh Dam had argued that it should not be built as Nowshera would drown in case of a flood. Unfortunately, it drowned anyway, bringing misery to millions who had nothing to do with the controversy.
Similarly, where are the so-called champions of clean environment who cried hoarse that if the Kalabagh Dam were built it would endanger mangroves and houbara bustards in the downstream areas of the Indus? Sadly, thousands of people have perished and millions have lost everything because of the narrow-minded approach of the elite.
Only recently, just before the floods set in, Sindh chief minister Qaim Ali Shah bitterly complained that Sindh was being deprived of water by Punjab, to the extent that Sindhis do not even have enough water to bathe. This is despite the fact that under the Water Accord of 1991 Punjab was allocated roughly 55 MAF, whereas Sindh was allocated 49 MAF of water.
With the water allocation issue settled, there should have been no hitch in building large earth-filled dams, not only to prevent floods but for electricity generation and irrigation. This would have been a win-win situation for all the provinces.
Perhaps "the day after" will present an opportunity to the powers that be to take the initiative on building large dams, including Kalabgh Dam. President Zardari, being a Sindhi, is certainly capable of biting the bullet.

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