WHEN natural disaster strikes, it can affect the rich and the poor, but not alike. Calamities such as floods and earthquakes hit the poor harder.
Being the children of lesser gods, the poor are more vulnerable. As such they need more help and for them recovery becomes a massive challenge.
In times of such crises, the temptation to cash in on their misery and play politics becomes irresistible for the rich and the powerful who have traditionally prospered from this inequitable equation.
This is being amply demonstrated in the testing times that Pakistan is currently going through, when floods are wreaking havoc on people who have already fallen victim to other tragedies that were essentially man-made. Many had suffered at the hands of terrorists. Others had seen dislocation and violence caused by the war that terrorism had invited. There were many more whose hardships were compounded by a dysfunctional and apathetic government not famous for its integrity.
Hence when the rains described by the Met Office as “once in a century” descended on the country, the devastation caused was stupendous. One should be wary of giving figures because the range of the numbers being quoted in the media and by leaders is mind-boggling. We are told that over 1,600 people have drowned, 13 million have been displaced, 252,000 homes have been washed away and infrastructure in large areas has been totally destroyed. The National Disaster Management Authority's website gives the update for Aug 8 as 1,203 deaths, 1,317 injured and 288,170 houses damaged. The country was in a state of shock — or should have been — given the scale of the destruction.
Natural calamities are unavoidable. But their impact can be minimised by careful and shrewd planning, and effective and prompt disaster management. Accurate forecasting and early warning, where possible, also reduce damage. In this context, we do not know how unpredictable the deluge really was and whether the loss of life could have been lower.
What was painful was the experience of watching different sectors of society vying to politicise the crisis to their own advantage. The reaction of different people spoke volumes for their perception of the crisis. The prime minister described the floods as the “worst in Pakistan's history” and went on to launch a flood relief fund while also making an appeal for international humanitarian assistance. Many countries were quick to respond — the US pledged $35m and Britain Â£15m.
True, the enormity of the damage called for intensive official intervention and the government's resources are limited. But its failure to make even a token gesture of demonstrating a spirit of self-reliance evoked cynicism. One did not hear of Islamabad tightening its belt to generate funds for flood relief. In fact, President Zardari's visit to France and Britain was even embarrassing because it displayed brazen insensitivity at a time when he should have been with his people. Besides, can one justify appeals for donations when the head of a government is ostensibly on a spending spree? The president tried to justify his visit in the context of the flood by saying that it helped him raise donations.
But was it just a coincidence that only a day before, his son Bilawal had launched a fund-raising drive, and the UK's Charity Commission, the independent charity regulator, issued a warning titled “Be aware of possible Pakistan appeal scams”. It warned the public against “criminals who try to take advantage of the public's generosity” through fictitious appeals.
The commission stated “the public's support is crucial to enable charities to deliver desperately needed aid to Pakistan but it is vital that donations go to a genuine charity so that they reach those in need”. Pakistani expatriates are usually known to donate generously whenever natural disaster strikes.
While political elements exploited the situation, the religious extremists were not to be left behind. Before the floods, the Taliban had no qualms about inflicting their brand of violence on innocent people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They had also been hand in glove with the timber mafia in denuding forested regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Deforestation, it is admitted, has exacerbated the tempo of the flood.
Adopting a carrot and stick strategy, a spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan announced at a time when the flood was at its peak that his organisation was suspending attacks in the flood-hit areas of the country. Of course the temporary respite never came. The day following this announcement the chief of the Frontier Constabulary was killed by a teenaged suicide bomber in Peshawar.
The Taliban saw the floods as an occasion to preach their own ideological doctrines and seize upon the people's misery to bring them to heel. A purported representative of the Taliban, as quoted by Channel 4 news, claimed that the flood was an opportunity for the people “to seek forgiveness” and “pledge support to the Mujahideen and Islam”. According to him the calamity was a punishment inflicted on the people who had “desecrated Sharia and insulted the Mujahideen and sought help from the infidels”.
After pointing out the flawed character of the population, the militants could not let go of this chance to impress on the people their “humanitarian spirit”. The religious parties went into action to set up relief camps for the flood victims in a show of sympathy for them.
In the lead was the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation — relief wing of the Jamaatud Dawa thought to be the public face of the Lashkar-i-Taiba which has been accused of masterminding the Mumbai attacks in 2008. With the government and the army's rescue operations failing to neutralise the impact of the fury of the rivers, the Islamist charities stood a good chance of winning the public's heart.
We will have to wait and see who wins in this strange battle for hearts and minds that is shaping up in Pakistan.