(Note: This commentary originally appeared in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser on August 25, 2010)
The recent catastrophic floods in Pakistan have created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in a nation already struggling with poverty, political instability and violent militancy. While the first order of business must be to provide relief for the millions whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, alarms have also been raised about the potential impact of the disaster on the long-term stability of this nuclear-armed nation of 167 million and the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaida in neighboring Afghanistan.
Within a four-day period in late July, Pakistan's Meteorological Department reported that the northern part of the country received ten times as much rain as it normally would in an entire year, a deluge that many speculate could be related to climate change.
About 20 percent of Pakistan – an area larger than about half the countries in the world – has been submerged.
The floods have left some 1,500 people dead, 4 million homeless, 8 million in urgent need of basic necessities and over 20 million directly affected, including the loss of assets and income. About 3.5 million children are at risk of water-borne diseases.
It is a "slow-moving tsunami” declared UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon after his visit to the affected areas.
The extent of damages to infrastructure and the economy are staggering. Half of Pakistan's cash crops, including cotton, sugar and rice, have been wiped out. About 70 percent of bridges and roads in the affected areas have been destroyed. Billions of dollars will be needed to recover.
Pakistan has shown resilience in coping with crises in the past, but coming in the aftermath of a 2005 earthquake that killed 73,000 people and an ongoing Taliban insurgency that has cost the country over $30 billion, the worst natural disaster in Pakistan’s history could set the country back for years.
If the government fails to coordinate relief efforts effectively, the human deprivation could be exploited by extremist groups. And with 60,000 Pakistani troops diverted to relief work, the fight against the Taliban insurgency could be hindered.
The response of the Pakistani civilian government has been slow and inept. President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to Europe a day after the flood started was severely criticized, and political parties have had difficulty putting aside their narrow interests to help cope with the disaster.
The initial global response to the floods was also extremely slow, even though the UN stated that in terms of number of people affected, the disaster is worse than the 2004 tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and this year’s Haiti earthquake combined.
The Obama administration has exercised leadership, however, contributing $150 million in new aid, in addition to $200 million from existing commitments that could also be used for recovery. As a result of the U.S. role, the UN is likely to exceed its target of $460 million for immediate relief for flood victims.
Last week, the Department of State set up a special Pakistan Relief Fund. Declaring that the disaster reflects “painful images of human suffering at its worst,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Americans to contribute to the fund at www.State.gov, or to send $10 simply by texting the word FLOOD to 27722.
The U.S. has good reason to be actively engaged. Success in Afghanistan – where America is spending $16 to $20 billion annually, in addition to the loss of life – depends upon the support of Pakistan, especially its military.
Supporting the Pakistani people in their hour of need is the best investment the U.S. can make to bridge the “trust deficit” that exists between the two allies in the war against terror and extremism.
G. Shabbir Cheema is Director of the Asia-Pacific Governance and Democracy Initiative at the East-West Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org