Disaster in Pakistan

Pakistan is in the grip of a deluge that some say is the worst since 1929 – 18 years before the land became an independent nation.

Pakistan is in the grip of a deluge that some say is the worst since 1929 – 18 years before the land became an independent nation. On Monday, Reuters said, medical teams were dispatched to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as North-West Frontier Province) amid fears that cholera and other water-borne diseases could spread, adding to the country’s suffering.

Already, up to 1,200 people have been reported dead in the disaster, according to one official cited by the Associated Press. Some two million other Pakistanis have been forced to flee their homes, while several thousands more remain trapped by raging floodwaters following July’s unusually heavy monsoon rains in the north-west. The New York Times said Pakistan’s military and emergency workers “struggled against time and nature” to reach at least 10,000 people trapped by collapsed bridges, flooded roads and rising waters.

“We’re out of bridges, so it’s the necessity of time to reach them by air,” the American newspaper quoted Adnan Khan, an official at Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Provincial Disaster Management Authority, as saying. Many of the bridges had been built by the army after it defeated Taliban militants in the Swat valley – renowned for its great natural beauty — last year.

Fazl Maula Zahid, a regional manager at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Swat, told The Times that 100,000 acres of soil (over 40,000 hectares) along the Swat river had been washed out. It would take a decade, he said, to restore fertility to the area, which feeds 50,000 people.

Amid the suffering and the statistics – and the rising water levels at dams — the disaster has “renewed Pakistan’s bitter internal feuds over water infrastructure, which has badly deteriorated during years of political stalemate”, The Globe and Mail reported. “We should have spent years preparing for this,” the Canadian paper quoted parliamentarian Marvi Memon as saying. Memon, who toured the chaotic flooded areas, said the Pakistani government has broken promises to raise embankments, maintain canals and build small dams that could have kept the waters at bay.

Pakistan’s capacity to hold monsoon rains has fallen as its dams fill with silt, reducing their storage to 12 million acre-feet from 18 million in the past five decades, according to The Globe and Mail. (An acre-foot is the volume of one acre of surface area to a depth of one foot.)

A new dam, Kalabagh, was announced five years ago,” correspondent Graeme Smith wrote, “but the project stalled because people downstream worried it might be used to steal their water.” Supporters of the dam said Pakistan should learn from the current disaster. “Kalabagh dam would have helped prevent flooding,” the governor of Punjab Province, Salmaan Taseer, wrote on Twitter last Thursday.

Bashir Ahmad Malik, one of Pakistan’s top water experts, agreed that Kalabagh and other infrastructure projects are needed to prevent such catastrophes. “It’s very silly that we don’t understand these things, as a nation,” The Globe and Mail quoted Malik, an engineer who has been a technical adviser to the United Nations and the World Bank, as saying. “It’s really quite sad.”

The flood-affected rivers in Pakistan all feed into the Indus, which originates on the Tibetan Plateau and flows into the southern province of Sindh, en route to the Arabian Sea. Later this week, as the rains move south, a large water surge is expected in Sindh, where officials have been trying to persuade residents of low-lying areas to evacuate. “A super-flood of this magnitude will be the first in 18 to 20 years to hit Sindh,” Reuters quoted a provincial government spokesman as saying. But some people are refusing to leave until temporary shelter is provided. “They have no places to stay, so where are they supposed to go?” Memon asked.

Pakistan’s weather bureau said an “unprecedented” 312 millimetres (nearly 12.3 inches) of rain hit the country’s north-west in just 36 hours last week. In the capital, Islamabad, the forecast calls for heavy rain every day until Friday.

(For updates on the humanitarian aid situation in Pakistan, see ReliefWeb here.)