GENEVA, Switzerland – Pakistan’s floods, the worst natural disaster in recent memory, have the potential to spark a series of crises that could affect large parts of the world, illustrating perhaps better than ever the political and economic consequences of climate change, analysts and international aid groups say.
Randolph Kent, executive director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme, said that disasters now are far more interactive than they were in the past and Pakistan’s floods are the prime example. The international community, he said, is just beginning to realize that the floods in Pakistan are the start of what could be a cascading series of political and economic catastrophes.
“Hundreds of millions of people will be vulnerable to a whole host of events,” Kent said. “What we are creating is a series of crisis drivers that impact on each other.”
In a report released earlier this month, called “Waters of the Third Pole,” the Humanitarian Futures Programme found that the Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountain ranges contain the earth’s third largest single mass of frozen water, surpassed only by the North and South Poles. Just as the glaciers in the Arctic are rapidly melting, the ice contained in the world's two largest mountain ranges is also beginning to melt.
The difference is that the water flowing down from the mountain ranges is rushing toward some of the most densely populated regions in the world. Together, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush feed ten major river systems, including the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow rivers and, of course, the rivers now flooding Pakistan.
One-fifth of the world’s population lives near these rivers.
Kent argues that traditional humanitarian organizations like the United Nations too often view large natural disasters on a country-by-country basis rather than taking a more globally strategic look at what is happening across continents.
The Pakistan floods, for instance, coincided with landslides in northwest China, which killed more than 700 people and left another thousand missing. At the same time, heat waves in Russia triggered forest fires outside Moscow and destroyed Russia’s wheat harvest to the extent that the country is considering banning exports.
All of these disasters happened more or less simultaneously as the result of a global climate pattern, yet each was reported as a separate event and interpreted as though there was no connection.
The political and economic repercussions, meanwhile, are likely to extend beyond the countries directly involved. Kent’s advice is to begin looking at the world more strategically and at a more global level, and to begin preparing ourselves for future disasters before it is too late.
In the case of Pakistan, an enormous portion of the country’s farmland has been destroyed, along with much of its infrastructure, and this has taken place in an area that is so poor that people have little to fall back on.
“You can put chickens, goats and sheep in the boat and take them with you, but you can't take a buffalo or a cow,” said Simon Mack, a livestock expert at the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization), quoted on Dawn.com, the website of Pakistan's leading newspaper.
The result, once the floods have gone, will be an economic catastrophe in which ordinary people lack the resources to feed their own families.
Political chaos, affecting more than just Pakistan, is also likely to follow. The floods are already destabilizing Pakistan’s weak civilian government. At least one minority political party is calling on the country’s army, which has proved better organized to respond to emergencies, to assume power.
Pakistan Army helicopters are delivering most of the assistance, which strengthens the army’s credibility. The U.S. Army has promised to provide additional helicopters to provide relief aid, but Pakistani feelings about a sudden influx of U.S. military hardware — even if it is to save lives — is likely to be ambivalent at best.
“If you look at it from Pakistan’s point of view, it would be crazy to align yourself with the United States right now,” said Emily Pantalone, a Tufts University student who has been researching the conflict in Afghanistan for a book.
No one expects a coup to take place anytime soon, but what is likely to happen is an increase in military influence over the civilian government, a reality that could have far-reaching affects on the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s relations with India and the role of the United States in the region.
If the United States and its NATO allies are concerned about the political implications of the flood, Pakistan’s homegrown Taliban movement appears to be using the disaster as a golden opportunity. Much of the area that is now under water was already sympathetic to the militants before the flood and, to a certain extent, the flood has served to undo the effects of a government military campaign intended to win the territory back.
The inability of either Pakistan’s government or the international community to provide sufficient aid quickly enough only reinforces the Pakistani Taliban’s argument that the foreigners, and their predator drones, should go home.
Complicating it further, the Taliban are now threatening to kill international aid workers supplying relief to flood victims. Even if nothing happens, the threat itself is likely to slow international aid efforts, which would in turn make the government seem less effective.
“We feel that there is a danger,” says Melanie Brooks, a spokesperson for CARE International. “That’s why we operate through local Pakistani NGOs.”
Other aid organizations have said that they are stepping up security precautions, but are determined to stay and get the job done.