January 1, 1970 |

The Indus River flooding has displaced 20 million Pakistanis and continues to maroon hundreds of villages in the south of the country. This represents a crisis bigger than the one Pakistan faced last year after the army moved against radical Taliban militants, displacing more than two million in the Swat region.

The economic consequences are equally devastating The flood has ravaged more than half of Pakistan’s cash crops such as cotton, sugarcane and paddy rice, wiping out about half a million small farmers financially. In a country in which half the population lives on less than $2 per day, the hardship is incalculable.

Agricultural economists such as Anwar Dasti Baloch worry that hundreds of thousands of farmers along the Indus in the south will be unable to enter their excessively soaked fields for several weeks. The ground may not absorb the waters quickly enough to allow sowing the next season’s crops.

But it is the political consequences that are most worrying of all. The disaster requires an unprecedented government mobilization, but the top leadership is already bogged down in recriminations. Former Prime Minister Mir Zafrullah Jamali has accused Federal Minister Ejaz Aslam Jhakhrani of engineering a major breach of the Toori protective embankment, which has inundated the former’s village in Balochistan province that sits on the border with Mr. Jhakhrani’s Sindh province.

Most believe that the Toori Embankment was punctured to protect the Shahbaz Air Base in Jacobabad, which the U.S. Marines and the CIA use to support operations in Afghanistan. Meanwhile the city of Jacobabad remains surrounded by waters with no road or rail link. Politicians in the central Punjab province have been hurling similar allegations at each other.

Jehangir Tareen, one of the biggest landlords and a former minister, warns of a socio-political upheaval if politicians continued to squabble. Hundreds of thousands of small farmers need immediate compensation and fresh inputs to be able to prepare for the next crop. If that doesn’t happen, Pakistan will face an even bigger crisis.

Most Pakistanis are on edge because of acute power shortages across the country. On Wednesday, thousands of residents in small towns near Peshawar blocked the motorway to Islamabad as well as the old Grand Trunk Road for several hours to protest the limited supply of electricity several hours a day.

Most of these areas in the northwest, located near the Indus and Kabul Rivers, were inundated until a few days ago, forcing the authorities to switch off the supply. Millions of people in the south have been facing a similar ordeal after flood waters forced their way into a few of the major power plants including Kot Addu and Jamshoro, as well as the Qadirpur gas fields, which supply the power companies with natural gas.

Demands to free up extra funds by halving the size of bloated federal and provincial cabinets as well as other austerity measures are already gaining ground. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has taken the lead in this regard. “We can mobilize over $4 billion at home, why ask others?” he asked last week.

Mr. Sharif is also insisting on the neutral composition of a Flood Relief Commission comprising non-political and credible national personalities. On Wednesday, he expressed his anguish at the delay in forming the commission that Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani had agreed to. Mr. Gilani chaired an urgent meeting on the issue yesterday and announced the setting up of a management council, but with no hint as to whether this is what Mr. Sharif had proposed.

Unless the government moves swiftly to coordinate with local and foreign non-governmental organizations, it could face a groundswell of unrest, creating a political space for Islamist parties. Officials are already struggling to stop banned outfits such as Jamaatud Dawa from collecting donations for the flood victims. U.S. Senator John Kerry also touched on the issue after visiting the affected regions. “We will not allow others to exploit people in need for political or ideological reasons,” Mr. Kerry declared at a press conference he jointly addressed with President Asif Ali Zardari on Thursday.

Pakistanis must rise above politics to deal with the unrest that is likely to emerge from the economic crisis, cautions Imran Khan, a former cricket team captain and head of the Pakistan Tehreeke Insaf political party. A non-political alliance is needed to lead the way to recovery, he believes. If we fail, people will rise up and violent forces could fill the vacuum.

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