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Did the floods drown Bhutto?

July 26, 2016

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It poured like never before. Over eight inches of rain descended on Karachi in just 12 hours. The otherwise tame Lyari and Malir rivers went wild and burst their banks. Karachi was flooded. The early July rainfall in 1977 killed over 350. Some estimates of the dead were as high as 1,000. Flooding rendered over 20,000 homeless, while hundreds remained missing.

Just days later, the Army swooped in, removed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto from power, and declared martial law.

This July 5 marked the 39th anniversary of the military coup that put General Ziaul Haq in power for 11 years. The socio-political discourse often holds the political instability responsible for Bhutto’s downfall.

See: A leaf from history — Zia’s martial law validated

The opposition parties launched mass agitation against Bhutto because they considered the March 1977 elections, which strengthened Bhutto’s grip over power, rigged.

It was not just the opposition parties, but also the flood waters that ran amok in the streets in 1977. In some parts of Karachi, the flood waters were five-to-eight feet high.

Together, political riots and floods devastated the economy and weakened Bhutto’s government, which was already reeling from the floods from the year before.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s political fortunes were hit by not one, but a series of annual floods.

An important question to ponder over is how the summer of 1977 would have unfolded had Karachi not been hit by the worst flood in 45 years.

Monsoons have hit Karachi several times since 1977. The city, regrettably, is as unprepared today to cope with the floods as it was some forty years ago.

The politics of natural disasters

Natural disasters are known to cause great upheavals for incumbent governments, especially those that fail to anticipate their scale and scope.

Development economists go as far as to argue that the poor die not as much of natural disasters, but of the sheer incompetence of their rulers, who fail to act preemptively and respond adequately after the calamity.

Take a look: The army is here because the government isn't

Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University holds natural disasters, including devastating impacts of climate change, responsible for several ethnic and territorial disputes.

Tribes that have not shared grazing land or water for centuries have been forced to share land and water, resulting in massacres.

The Arab Spring, which merely displaced those despots in the Middle East, who had fallen out of favour with the lobbyists inside the Washington Beltway, has its roots partially in natural disasters. Droughts and the resulting high inflation in food staples fuelled anger that boiled over on to the streets.

Floods or no floods, the late 70s were a period of significant turmoil in the region. Iran was imploding as Reza Shah Pehalvi’s regime was about to be overthrown by the Iranian mullahs.

In Afghanistan, the Socialist governments that forcibly replaced monarchy were caving under pressure from militant peasants, aided and abetted of course by the US, Saudi, and Pakistan. China had not yet been fully embraced by the West and remained a mystery and an unmitigated risk.

The worst floods in Pakistan's history

But then, there were floods, and not just in Pakistan, but also in India, and not just in 1977, but also sooner. In fact, Mr Bhutto’s first visit to the US in September 1973 as Pakistan’s first elected Prime Minister was overshadowed by floods.

Bhutto was to visit in July. However, the trip was postponed at the last minute when President Richard Nixon fell ill. Bhutto was to ask for military supplies and wheat in July.

But, the floods changed everything.

The floods in 1973 destroyed standing cotton and rice crops. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stored wheat was lost. The economic growth estimated at 8 per cent for 1973 was revised down to zero per cent. Bhutto’s government failed miserably to do any advance planning for the floods.

The opposition parties accused Mr Bhutto of misgovernance. The US came to the rescue and offered $30 million in flood assistance including 100,000 tons of grains — the largest aid amount to any country.

Explore: Bhutto’s ideologue — friend, mentor, enemy

To put the aid numbers in context, the average annual per capita income in Pakistan was no higher than $80 in 1973.

Mr Bhutto used the floods to strengthen his hold on power. Instead of focusing on an economic recovery, he followed a protectionist agenda that burnt bridges with the private sector. At the same time, his high-handed treatment of the dissent was nothing but disastrous.

He waged military action against dissenting tribes and politicians in Balochistan and the NWFP. He condemned his opponents to prison, and shutdown the opposing news outlets. No wonder General Zia found support among those who had suffered under Mr Bhutto.

If the masses found Bhutto’s regime to be a fire pan, Zia’s rule was nothing but fire.

General Zia’s morbid fascination with harsh, even inhumane, punishments sowed the seeds of violence as public hangings and floggings desensitised people to violence.

Decades later, one could see its worse incarnation when the Taliban started to hang headless corpses in a square in Swat.

The floods continued to play havoc in the late 80s.

Year after year, flood water destroyed crops forcing Pakistan to import grains, pushing its dream of self-sufficiency into a distant future.

Pakistan’s vulnerability to floods was most obvious in 2010 when tens of millions were displaced and thousands died.

Even though floods are as destructive to the masses as they were in the 70s, they somehow don’t hurt the political elite any more.