Though it has received only moderate attention in the western press, the torrential flooding of large swaths of Pakistan since late July may be the most catastrophic natural disaster to strike the country in half a century. But even greater than the human cost of this devastating event are the security challenges it poses. Coming at a time of widespread unrest, growing Taliban extremism, and increasingly shaky civilian government, the floods could lead to the gravest security crisis the country--and the region--has faced. Unless the international community takes immediate action to provide major emergency aid and support, the country risks turning into what until now has remained only a grim, but remote possibility--a failed state with nuclear weapons.
Since the upper reaches of the Indus and other rivers in Northern Pakistan first flooded their banks over three weeks ago, the floods have spread to many other parts of the country, submerging dozens of villages, killing thousands, uprooting some 20 million people, and leaving millions of poor children and infants at terrible risk of exposure to water-borne diseases. But the next few months could be even worse, as the collapse of governance and growing desperation of flooded areas leads to increasing social and ethnic tensions, terrible food shortages, and the threat that large parts of the country, now cut off from Islamabad, will be taken over by the Pakistani Taliban and other extremist groups.
A key part of the security problem lies in the already precarious situation of the regions most affected. The floods and heavy rain have caused the worst damage in the poorest and least literate areas of the country where extremists and separatist movements thrive: this includes the northern region, near Afghanistan, but also parts of Balochistan and Sindh provinces in the south. By contrast, central Punjab, the country's richest region, with incomes and literacy about double that of other parts of the country, has been relatively unscathed by the disaster. The longstanding resentment by ethnic groups in the smaller provinces against Punjab is thus likely to increase.
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