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Devastation in Pakistan

Devastation in PakistanAyesha Jalal, an expert on South Asian politics and history, comments on the fallout from the catastrophic floods.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.15.10] This summer, the annual monsoons rained disaster over Pakistan, causing floods that covered one-third of country in water, according to the United Nations.

Some 20 million Pakistanis-nearly 12 percent of the nation's population-were displaced. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 1,400 people died and 4.6 million people received medical treatment in August alone for conditions including skin diseases, acute diarrhea, acute respiratory infection and suspected malaria, but concerns about cholera outbreaks and other waterborne diseases persist.

From the archives: Jalal explores the notion of identity in the context of South Asian political history (Nov. 2008)

"I think the international community has realized this is a huge humanitarian crisis," says Ayesha Jalal, the Mary Richardson Professor of History in the School of Arts and Sciences and The Fletcher School, scholar of South Asian politics and history and of Pakistani origin. "When the UN secretary-general says he hasn't seen anything like it, you have to take this very seriously."

Jalal says the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan has unfolded slowly. Unlike an earthquake that strikes suddenly and catastrophically, the impact from floods grew over time, and the international community was not immediately aware of the scope of the crisis.

While countries around the world have come to Pakistan's aid by donating money or resources to the relief cause, the nation still faces an immense task of rehabilitation of the flood victims and rebuilding its infrastructure, including bridges, roads, schools, health-care facilities and homes.

"Pakistan was reeling economically, but this has simply broken its back," she says.

E-News: You are a native of Pakistan. For the regions that have been affected by the flooding, what are some of the specific concerns and impacts? What are the citizens going through?

Jalal: The immediate concerns are to provide clean water, food, shelter and medicines. Due to the magnitude of the tragedy, many citizens are not getting the relief they need fast enough. There are logistical problems of getting relief to stranded people, especially in mountainous areas of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa. After the relief, help has to be extended to the victims to rebuild their homes and regain their livelihoods.

What financial impact will the floods and the rebuilding effort have on Pakistan?

The Pakistani economy was already teetering at the brink before the floods. And yes, the destruction of the crops and livestock is causing massive problems. Even as the flood water recedes, huge areas cannot be cultivated. Pakistan needs debt relief urgently, preferably with a part of its outstanding debt written off.

Are there concerns about political destabilization in the wake of the flooding?

There are enormous concerns about law and order problems as frustrated and desperate flood victims attack relief workers. Then the militants are at work exploiting the situation. The elected government, already weakly placed, is being flayed for its poorly organized response. So the political fallout of the crisis is huge.

How will U. S. contributions to flood relief affect joint efforts with Pakistan to combat terrorism?

The U.S. relief efforts are clearly helping Pakistan cope with the humanitarian crisis. But much more needs to be done, as this is not a crisis that can be managed in a hurry. The Pakistani army, the key institution in the country, is likely to continue its efforts to combat terrorism, even though it is now stretched to the limit due to its critical role in the relief efforts. The damage done to roads and bridges is creating some problems in getting supplies to NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, though these will doubtless be addressed on an urgent basis.

Interview by Georgiana Cohen, Web Communications 

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Nathaniel Eberle