Pakistan’s Floods – Its Water Wars Begin

August 2, 2010

The floods in Pakistan are unimagineably awful. From the BBC:

“Rescuers are struggling to reach 27,000 people still cut off by the floods, which are the worst in 80 years….At least 1,100 people have died and thousands have lost everything.

In the worst-affected areas, entire villages were washed away without warning by walls of flood water,” the Red Cross said in a statement.”

Some are angry, however:

“There have been complaints from some survivors that the government response has been slow and inadequate…Several hundred people took part in a protest in the north-western city of Peshawar, where homeless survivors have crammed into temporary shelters.

“The government is not helping us,” said 53-year-old labourer Ejaz Khan, whose house on the city’s outskirts was swept away by the floods…”The school building where I sheltered is packed with people, with no adequate arrangement for food and medicine,” he told AFP news agency.

The Indepdendent‘s Omar Waraich, however, puts the floods into (an even more dire) perspective, arguing that despite “Record-breaking rainfall has brought floods which have so far killed more than 800,” Pakistan “faces a water crisis so severe it will stalk the country for decades after the present torrents have receded.”

Over 600 children die every week from water born diseases, while “the water residents depend on arrives contaminated by untreated sewage, industrial waste, salts and other chemicals.” Water availability per person has been plummeting (down to a fifth of the 1947 level) and government action has been minimal (water filtration schemes promised by the Musharraf government have simply disappeared from the agenda).

Moreover, water availability feeds into national security concerns, with India seeming to be entrenching its position on the headwaters of the Indus in Kashmir, and Pakistani officials becoming increasingly edgy. With an economy that is heavily dependent upon an inefficient agricultural sector, control over the nation’s water supply is being seen as a crucial tool in ensuring domestic stability.

And all of this feeds into the global struggle to adapt to, and mitigate the effects of climate change. Pakistan is reckoned to be one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change, as Himalayan glaciers melt and waterflow becomes more erratic.

What we can’t predict is how society will respond to this Janus-faced water crisis (both too much, as we see now, and too little, as is generally the case). India and Pakistan currently share the Indus amicably enough under a 1960 treaty (it’s on other issues that they bicker). Who knows how long this will last?

Disasters like this also nourish anti-government sentiment and forces, which could be good, but could be dangerous. Right-wing Islamist movements such as Lashkar-e-Taiba have been first on the ground to respond to the needs of flood victims, occupying the enormous space vacated by the government and international aid organizations. Pakistan’s president, the odious Asif Ali Zardari, flew off to Europe to capitalise on a recent gaffe made by Britain’s PM David Cameron, instead of staying to respond to the flooding.

Pakistan fascinates because it represents a nexus of climate change and U.S. militarism – a dangerous combination. It’s essentially a neoliberal state (with government run enterprises being sold-off wholesale in recent years), and a deeply corrupt one too, all of which militates against adequate responses to environmental threats.

Hence, these floods are just the beginning of Pakistan’s water-wars.

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