Sep 2, 2010

After the flood

Ashraf Jehangir Qazi
The writer is Pakistan's former envoy to the US and India
Après moi, le deluge! (After me, the flood!) In which Pakistani mouth does it lie to repeat the French Sun King's observation? Musharraf's? Increasingly many, including it seems Altaf Bhai, appear inclined to agree. Which is the greater tragedy? The horrendous humanitarian losses caused by the floods and the still more devastation to lives and livelihoods they have yet to wreak in their aftermath through the destruction of community, food, health, educational and physical infrastructures? Or the apparent inability and unwillingness of our "people-less" democratic political culture to care, learn and respond to the priorities that this national emergency has made imperative?
There is no doubt that the scale of the floods would have overwhelmed a much more credible governance structure in a much more advanced society. There is also no doubt that the quality of our response has elicited domestic and international criticisms leading to calls from some quarters for non-democratic approaches, if necessary, to address the unrelenting hell that the flood victims are immediately faced with, and which much of the rest of the country will sooner or later confront. The ranks of those living below and around the poverty line (a universe in which no human rights and therefore no future can exist) are expected to significantly swell above their already swollen figures.
Experts, both national and international, are assessing the extent of the havoc and needs assessment missions will propose measures for relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction as the flood waters recede. But translating expert advice into appropriate policies on the ground will be a function of elite attitudes and priorities which until now have had very little to do with serving the people, except rhetorically, spasmodically and to the extent necessary to remain entrenched in power and privilege.
Is this about to change? Will the floods be seen as a warning – divine or mundane – to change our ways? I would not recommend anyone hold their breath. The powers that be will see this nature-made and man-exacerbated calamity as just another challenge to their hegemony. Such challenges have been seen off before in the aftermath of the military defeat and breakup of the country, the dirty wars against disaffected and deprived regions of our country, the tragi-comedy of the Kargil fiasco, the lawyers movement, the political, economic and institutional implosions that were already well advanced before the latest floods, and, now our errant cricketers who in any case are more victims than villains in our sorry story. What about the bigger fish who have fashioned our story? While we fast approach being a failed state our intelligence apparatus remains top of the world rankings. Bravo! The status quo remains secure, for now – our only planning period.
Napoleon said China is a sleeping giant which, when it wakes up, will shake the world. Mao finally said China has stood up. Similarly the people of Pakistan are seen as a sleeping giant which must not be allowed to stand up – at least not for too long to do any real damage. As long as the people are not allowed to follow Iqbal's call - az khaab-i-giraan khez! – there is no need to fear all the technical and expert advice in the world. Within safety limits, and to the extent it enables the people to go back to sleep, it can be followed with collateral benefits for the ruling elite and the complicit comfortable. There should be no cause for panic about real democracy breaking out. That would be beyond the realm of expert advice and the tolerance of our democratic political culture.
But, of course, our situation is likely to worsen. Ironically, in a time of floods it is the prospect of water shortages that is one of our most dangerous challenges. In his An Inconvenient Truth Al Gore says Asia has 60 per cent of the world's population but only 36 per cent of its renewable fresh water. The Himalayas contain 100 times as much ice as the European Alps and provide more than half of the drinking water for 40 per cent of the world's population through seven rivers originating on the Tibetan Plateau: the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and the Yellow rivers. These glaciers, on which more than a billion people depend, are melting at a faster rate than anticipated. According to Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project, the prospect of tensions over how to share water within and between countries can lead to humanitarian crises, civil unrest and even water wars. There will be more climate and ecological refugees and displaced persons. The issue of water security is rapidly becoming critical. Massive financial and political resources will need to be invested in meeting this challenge.
Accordingly, the current floods in Pakistan cannot be treated as a one-off catastrophe. They may well be only a prelude to future and possibly even worse floods. Flood control infrastructure, warning mechanisms, response capabilities will need to be developed. The immediate food and health consequences of the floods will need to be mitigated. The civil administration structures at all levels will need to be enabled to cope with the task. The political milieu within which the civil administration has to provide services and distribute aid will need to be less disruptive and more facilitating. Coordination and cooperation at the district, provincial, interprovincial and national levels will need to become realities rather than just declarations of intent. The image we project of ourselves abroad, which has proven to be a major impediment to the mobilisation of the required scale of international assistance, will need to significantly improve. While expert technical advice will be indispensable all of the above will have to become political priorities.
Will they? We heard our leadership say the development budget will have to be reduced to provide the resources needed for relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction. There was no mention of the defence budget or of administrative reform. There was no talk of tailoring security and foreign policies to the requirements of social and economic recovery. Indian offers of assistance were too hot to handle. There has been no tendency to reduce the asinine bickering between political parties. Like the priesthood in Constantinople that was furiously debating how many angels could stand on the point of a needle while the city was besieged by the Muslims, our leaders furiously lash out at each other while our country crumbles around them.
In our current dire straits, no government with a modicum of responsibility towards succeeding generations should fail to give priority to the mobilization and provision of the massive amount of resources required to deal with the aftermath of the floods, even if that entails changes in the parameters of our established policies. But my more intelligent and realistic friends assure me this is an infantile hope, and that if I want to be taken seriously I should display enough maturity to accept the fact that it takes more than a flood of "Biblical proportions" and the displacement and devastation of maybe a quarter of our population to unsettle our established classes. Within these limits, if I have anything sensible to say, I might be listened to. Meanwhile the elite and the comfortable – always large numbers of admirably active and dedicated individuals apart - will remain clever enough to do what is required in their own interests and smart enough to do nothing more and prevent others from doing so. And when the game is finally over they expect to be "home" free leaving the rest to take the consequences. Along with T S Eliot we might well ask: After such knowledge – what forgiveness?

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