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Pakistan’s floods are not just a natural disaster

Posted by Lindy on August 6, 2010

The state has failed its citizens, and now the country is unprepared to deal with the floods

by Kamila ShamsieThursday 5 August 2010

At the last count, 54 villages have been swept away entirely and the death toll is already nearly 1,500, and more rains are expected.

But floods are, after all, “natural disasters” or “acts of God”  – and no one is culpable, no one could have prevented it, could they? The truth is, the death toll could have been much lower, assistance much more quickly and efficiently at hand. Instead, report after report talks of the inadequacy of the state’s response to the crisis. This is made more maddening by the fact that much of the flooding took place in parts of the country that were already a humanitarian disaster zone. There should have been lots of help from government already there, along with NGOs such as OXFAM to quickly switch from rebuilding after the army has cleared the Taliban from Northern Pakistan. But squabbling between the army and civilians, means that many of the promised projects had not been started and so there was no-one to help with the new disaster.

But that is not only issue. Environmental groups have been warning for years that activities of the timber mafia, who support many local and national government officials, would causes floods, soil erosion and loss of life. How right this has proved to be.

The Swat Valley should have been crowded by institutions of state helping rehabilitate those returning to their homes, and switching focus to flood relief should have been a fairly speedy process. After all, NGOs such as Oxfam and its local partners in Swat have made precisely that switch. The fact that a pre-existing disaster meant NGOs were on the ground and able to respond swiftly to the flooding is the thinnest of silver linings. But, while assistance from the state has not been wholly absent in the Swat valley in the last year, many of the proposed aid projects are yet to materialise and assistance has been slowed down by a tug of war between the military and civilian authorities for who has control of the rehabilitation.

But it is not only the matter of response but also that of cause which implicates the state of Pakistan. In the last few years, environmental groups, activists and journalists have talked repeatedly of the power of the timber mafia, which has a particularly strong hold on the areas now affected by flooding. But, in the way that horror tends to pile on horror in Pakistan, not only has the flooding been intense in areas where the timber mafia is active but the felled trees, hidden in ravines prior to smuggling them onwards, have caused havoc. Dislodged by torrents of water, they have swept away bridges and people and anything else in their path.


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