The numbers just keep rising. Nearly a month since heavy monsoon rains caused the worst flooding in Pakistan’s history, a fifth of its territory is now enveloped in a sheet of water. The total number of people affected has climbed to 20 million. At the weekend, some 200,000 more people in the worst affected southern province of Sindh abandoned their homes for higher land as the raging Indus River threatened to breach embankments there. The panicked rush from three villages in the Thatta district pushed the total number of people displaced to nearly five million, the largest movement of people in the region since the subcontinent’s partition in 1947.
Outbreaks of cholera and dysentery have heightened fears of a wider spread of deadly water-borne diseases. The number of people reported to be suffering from acute diarrhea has reached 200,000. An equal number have been hit by respiratory illnesses. As the waters hurtle towards the Arabian Sea after having snaked down the length of the country, they have submerged 17 million acres of agricultural land. Along with the crops, some 200,000 animals have perished. In the towns and villages where people now shelter — in tented camps, cramped school and government buildings, or even on the roadside — the prices of food and other basic needs have soared.
The sole mercy amid the growing hardship has been a sudden increase in much-needed aid. A special session of the United Nations General Assembly last week saw the international community nearly quadruple its support to date. “We have been able to mobilize $815.58 million,” Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, tells TIME. He says $495 million has been committed and a further $325 million has been pledged — “almost double what the UN had initially appealed for.” The biggest contribution comes from the U.S., which has marshaled a total of $150 million. The aid comes on the heels of the World Bank announcing a $1 billion concessional loan and the Asian Development Bank offering a $2 billion emergency loan for reconstruction.
Still, the gathered sums could fall well short of what will be required. By some estimates, the cost of the flooding could reach up to $15 billion. “At this stage, it is difficult to give a figure on the scale of the damage,” says Qureshi. “It’s an evolving situation. At least for the next three weeks, it will continue. The monsoon season is not over yet, and there are indications that the eastern rivers that were not in high flood are now rising.”
The accelerated fundraising will dim the roar of critics who alleged that the civilian government was described by many as “too corrupt” to be trusted by the world. But the additional heavy borrowing, while it comes interest-free, has spiked fears of a further deepening of Pakistan’s debt crisis. “The debt-servicing burden will just kill the country,” says Ahsan Iqbal, a leading member of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s opposition party. “We won’t be able to build anything in this country of our own.” Nearly half of Pakistan’s budget is devoted to debt-servicing and military spending. As of July, external debt stood at $55.5 billion. According to IMF projections, that figure will swell to $74 billion by 2015, as Islamabad will seek further loans after the floods. Other critics are demanding that the government ask for its debts to be written off. “It’s easy to be critical,” replies Qureshi, “but what are the alternatives?”
On the verge of bankruptcy two years ago, Pakistan is dependent on a $11.3 billion IMF support package. Before the floods, it was struggling to meet the loan’s requirements. Now, it will be impossible to do so. The Pakistani Finance Minister will meet with IMF officials on Monday to try and relax the terms of the loan. As a result of the national tragedy, the budget deficit is set to grow, inflation will rise, and economic growth is being projected to slow by 1.5% — all areas where the IMF had wanted to see progress in the opposite direction.
As economic worries mount, so do political ones for the government. The floods have dealt a grievous blow to an already disliked government’s image. An eruption of popular fury, amplified by a hostile media, has left the government accused of not doing enough to issue early warnings, organize evacuations, provide shelter and aid, and divert waters efficiently. By contrast, the army has won plaudits for its role in leading the rescue efforts. “The anger and the frustration was only natural. There were gaps and there were challenges [in the government’s response],” concedes Qureshi. “Nobody could have anticipated a challenge of this magnitude. It’s a once-in-a-century challenge.”
The political opposition has seized on the government’s litany of perceived failures to sharpen its criticism, focusing intently on the role — or lack there of — of President Asif Ali Zardari in the disaster. “There he was, flying to his chateau in France when people in Pakistan were sinking,” says Mushahid Hussain, a prominent opposition leader, referring to Zardari’s absence when the tragedy was unfolding. “It was his Marie Antoinette moment. It shows that he doesn’t care a damn for his people.”
There have been flickers of protests, but large-scale riots against the government have not erupted. But that could change. For Zardari and his allies, the floods carry the added misfortune of soaking their political bases, while sparing northern Punjab and Karachi, the wealthiest parts of the country, where power eludes the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
But while Zardari’s fortunes may appear to be sinking with the floods, the national tragedy could lead to a measure of political stability. The fact that all four provinces have, in some way, been affected may prove a source of cohesion. And for all the scorn they have poured on the once-again embattled president, his political opponents don’t seem keen to heave him out of power. Despite his differences with the government over the setting up of a new “flood commission,” former Prime Minister Sharif has maintained that he will support it during this difficult time. “It’s time for everyone to stop this mud-slinging, have a political ceasefire for six months, and come together,” says Hussain, the opposition leader. Political unity, he adds, was crucial to the country’s fight against the militants last year.
It will certainly be needed to stave off their return. “If the economic situation deteriorates, if poverty rises, if there are food shortages, it will have an impact on political stability,” says Qureshi. “If we fail to reach the flood affectees, then we are creating a vacuum and permitting mischief-makers to reach there.” In some ways, that is already happening. Charities linked to banned militant outfits have been making inroads by providing relief, albeit on a scale smaller than many had feared. But it remains to be seen whether an army overstretched by the crisis can hold on to its gains against the Pakistani Taliban and their allies.
Future military offensives “will not be put on hold,” insists Qureshi. “The army that is deployed for dealing with the militants hasn’t been moved,” he says. “We have deployed additional forces to deal with the flood. But the challenge has grown.” A major test of the army’s abilities will come in the Swat Valley, a former holiday destination, where people have been displaced again barely a year after they fled the fighting against the Taliban. For the most part, the army drove the militants out, but many fear the floods could open up a vacuum that would allow them to return to a weary population. Not a single bridge has survived in the area, and the valley’s famed fruit orchards have been ruined. Reconstruction efforts have either been put on hold or washed away. The people’s patience is fraying.
The floods also likely mean that there will be no foreseeable push into North Waziristan, the base for militant groups that poses the most potent threat to U.S. and NATO troops across the border. Washington had long been urging Pakistan to focus on military action in this area. As the floods have surged in Pakistan, the costs in Afghanistan may also be rising.