August 02, 2010

This Weekend’s News: Flooding in Pakistan Tests Tempers

Severe flooding throughout Pakistan is exacerbating anti-government anger in many parts of the country, including in Pakistan’s northwest region, particularly the Swat Valley where the Pakistani military has been engaging the Taliban and other Islamic insurgents seeking refuge from U.S. military and NATO forces in Afghanistan. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that the recent flooding, which has claimed at least 700 lives, is “the latest disaster to test Pakistan's already strained leadership,” a test that the Pakistani government appears to be struggling with. (An update from The Washington Post this morning puts the death toll between 730 and 1,100.)   

According to The Washington Post, the government’s disaster response efforts have been hampered by sluggishness and disorganization, with authorities appearing “overmatched by the massive devastation.”  The Post reported that “Provincial officials in the northwest [said] these floods have been the worst to hit the area since at least the 1920s, and they concede they have few resources with which to help victims.”

The destruction has been widespread, claiming coveted livestock and crumbling infrastructure. The effects have been felt throughout the country, but in particular in the Swat Valley where tensions between the government and the people have already been enflamed by recent fighting between the army and Islamic militants, where stability remains tenuous. As The New York Times reported:

Also hit hard was the Swat Valley, where the government has been working on reconstruction after last year’s military operation there to remove the militants; of the 65 bridges washed away by the rains, 25 were in Swat. A community awareness group in Swat called CARAVAN, which has a sprawling volunteer network, reported that up to 90 percent of area residents had lost their livestock. It also said that the floods topping the famed river Swat washed away 26 hotels that line the riverfront view, including the iconic Khyber and Honeymoon hotels.

Analysts worry that the Pakistani government’s inadequate response efforts could undermine its security efforts in the region. As The New York Times reported:

The disaster and any perception of government mismanagement could further distance the country’s leaders from their people. Many Pakistanis are already angry with the leadership for allowing the United States to send drone aircraft to kill members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban taking shelter there, and they blame the airstrikes for waves of terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

The Washington Post added that Islamic charities with close ties to militant groups could use the disaster as an opportunity to further their agenda by luring in the public with services the government is unable to provide. “While that does not yet appear to be happening on a wide scale,” the Post reported, “analysts say it could if the government does not soon improve its performance,” and provide better disaster assistance. "The government unfortunately seems to be mostly helpless," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general who spoke to The Washington Post. "I'm very concerned that the militant organizations will be jumping in."

Despite widespread unpopularity, the United States has responded to the disaster with 10 million dollars in disaster relief and has supplied “helicopters, boats, pre-fabricated steel bridges and more than 100,000 meals,” according to the Post.

The flooding in Pakistan is yet another example of where environmental challenges engage with existing domestic trends – such as political turmoil – to create an even more complex security environment. How the events in Pakistan will unfold is not really clear, but we’ll be keeping an eye on this story while you look to the week ahead.

The Week Ahead

It looks like it's going to be a quiet week in Washington, but there are still a few natural security-related events to be aware of. On Wednesday, August 4, the Middle East Institute will host "The East Moves West: India, China, and Asia's Growing Presence in the Middle East" at noon.  The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will also be hosting a hearing on the “Use of Oil Dispersants in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill" on the same day at 10 AM. The Center for Strategic and International studies hosts "Mexico's Oil Production in the Wake of the Gulf Oil Spill" on Thursday, August 5 from 9 to 11 AM.