Flood refugees threaten Pakistan's political stability

ISLAMABAD Wed Sep 22, 2010 2:01pm EDT

Villagers displaced by flooding wade through floodwaters as they return to their flooded village of Bello Patan, in Pakistan's Sindh province, September 21, 2010. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Villagers displaced by flooding wade through floodwaters as they return to their flooded village of Bello Patan, in Pakistan's Sindh province, September 21, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Millions of people forced to flee their homes by Pakistan's worst ever floods may emerge as the most explosive issue for a feeble government in the wake of a disaster that will strain the economy for years to come.

Pakistan was already under growing pressure to deal with over one million people displaced by fighting between the army and homegrown Taliban militants in the northwest.

Now it must tackle a wider crisis -- 10 million people displaced by the floods -- that could create political instability in a frontline state in the U.S. war on militancy.

"If these people are not somehow accommodated and their issues are not addressed in terms of basic shelter, basic food, medical care and rehabilitation and in terms of livelihood, then we are looking at potentially large social unrest," said Kamran Bokhari, South Asia director at STRATFOR global intelligence.

"Dislocation by itself can bring down states and governments, in theory."

While floodwaters have largely receded in northwest and central Pakistan, thousands are still being evacuated in the south, officials say.

"There are people who have been displaced only six days ago," Louis-Georges Arsenault, director of UNICEF's Office of Emergency Programmes, told Reuters after visiting camps in southern Sindh province.

The cash-strapped government will be hard pressed to generate funds, work out complicated logistics and, most importantly, prove it can take charge after the military did most of the heavy lifting during flood relief and rescue operations.

Leaving displacement issues to the powerful military as well could further undermine the state's credibility.

Analysts say that while a army-led coup is highly unlikely, the military may decide to take measured action if the government fails to help the displaced, especially since the Taliban could recruit flood victims who give up on the state.

"In a situation of crisis when the civilian government loses legitimacy, it may be easy for the military to either manipulate the government from the sidelines, or indirectly bring in its own men to replace the government," said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

Speculation is swirling about the fate of the government.

What is clear, said Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid, is the army "is fed up with the government."

Critics say the government and the army have been pressuring people displaced by fighting to return home, despite security fears and lack of resources to rebuild.

Former Taliban stronghold Swat Valley, hit hard by floods, highlights the multiple layers of the displacement problem.

Take farmer Niamat Ali Khan. The Taliban killed his brother, two uncles and kidnapped and tortured him, he said, so he fled his home and spent two years at a camp for refugees.

After receiving assurances from the military, Khan said, he returned home. Then the floods swept away his home and land. "The government has not helped us so far despite promises," he said.

The World Bank and the United States have urged Pakistan to take steps to reassure donors that it is capable of using their flood aid responsibly and transparently. Failure to do so could mean delays in billions of dollars needed for reconstruction.

The International Crisis Group think tank said the floods have turned displacement into a "national disaster of mammoth proportions" and urged the government to handle it.

"Given the scale of the needs, there may be a temptation among donors to circumvent civilian structures and work directly with the military to deliver aid, but this would be a dangerous choice," said Samina Ahmed, its South Asia Project Director.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Faisal Aziz in Jamshoro, Augustine Anthony in Islamabad, Junaid Khan in Swat, Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Gul Yusufzai in Quetta)

(Editing by Miral Fahmy and Ron Popeski)

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