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Disaster and the lost cause

July 28, 2011

Ganj Bux, 80, displaced by heavy floods for almost a year, sits on the ground in a camp for flood victims in Sukkur, located in Pakistan's Sindh province July 11, 2011. – Reuters Photo

It has been a year now since the devastating 2010 floods ravaged Pakistan. The slow moving Tsunami devoured the landscape as though it were a biblical plague straight out of Cecil B. DeMille’s film “The Ten Commandments”. Unfortunately this was no film and the tragedy that unfolded was all too real.

The United Nations report on the floods released in March 2011 describes the disaster as having been on an “unprecedented scale”. The floods itself started after heavy rainfall caused flash floods in the north and north-west of the region. The intense rain in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa amalgamated flood peaks in the Swat River. The flood waters reached the Arabian Sea after having travelled downstream through the barrages in Punjab and Sindh. The situation was further exasperated by breaches in canals and embankments, particularly in Sindh, along with water being diverted to prevent flooding in urban areas.

The Government of Pakistan estimated that nearly 2000 people were killed while 20 million others were affected by the floods. The economy of the country suffered an astronomical $43 billion. Livestock and agriculture, the very backbone of the workers of the land was completely decimated. The floods killed nearly 200,000 livestock and washed away stored food that would have fed millions.

After such a traumatic experience and when people finally came to grasp with the scale of the event, the public wanted to know who, if anyone, was responsible for it all.

The Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary took suo moto notice and ordered an inquiry into allegations that flood waters had been diverted by influential political figures including MNA’s to prevent damage to their personal property. This was done after prominent figures including lawyer Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim and then-MNA Marvi Memon wrote letters or filed petitions in the Supreme Court to look into the matter.

The Supreme Court constituted the Flood Inquiry Commission on December 15 2010 which was headed by Muhammad Azam Khan and included A.W Kazi, Zaheer Ahmed and Fateh Khan Khajjak. When the commission did present its findings to the Apex Court, unsurprisingly, it was found out that mass corruption within the Irrigation Departments of Balochistan and Sindh was responsible for the havoc. The report said that embankments in the country were not properly maintained and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) had not been properly followed through. The report stated that illegal encroachments along the banks of the rivers had been given tacit approval by the relevant authorities and had been allowed to thrive. The report further stated that the provincial governments encouraged illegal encroachments.

Massive corruption within the provincial hierarchy and downright criminal negligence was a major contribution to the calamity that hit Pakistan last year. But will we learn anything from these revelations? In our country there never seems to a serious study from lessons of the past. One other natural calamity that comes to mind in our history was the Bhola cyclone in 1970 in East Pakistan. The cyclone killed over 300,000 people, and was widely regarded as a catalyst for the rise in Bengali nationalism that severed the country in 1971. In that incident the majority population of the country broke away from the minority, the first and only time in history to have happened. The poor response by the military authorities in that incident alienated an already angry Bengali populace. The army however did not repeat its mistake in the East Pakistan debacle and in fact lead from the front during the rescue operations in the floods, which boosted their image amongst the populace. In stark contrast, the response by the civilian government did not inspire many people, but damaged their already abysmal image.

Thankfully the death toll in the 2010 floods was not on the same level as Cyclone Bhola, but has raised questions as to whether anyone will be held accountable or not. Based on past experiences, it’s highly unlikely. There is no culture for holding people accountable for crimes in this country. An annual US State Department report that came out earlier this year said that there was a ‘culture of impunity’ in Pakistan, in which people are never taken to task for crimes committed.

It’s still too early to tell the long term impact of the floods on Pakistan. The pessimist would say that say that we are already a gone case, beyond redemption and help. The optimist on the other hand would rebuke that and say that the floods washed away the old Pakistan and will give birth to a new one.

The culture of impunity which has plagued Pakistan for so long needs to be discarded once and for all. We can no longer afford to limp along towards the future. Those that bear responsibility for the criminal negligence that affected the floods have to be punished. We must not send a message to future generations that the people that abetted such a tragedy in our country were never held accountable, but got away scot-free. We have received that message too often from the past.