Hard choices on flood spending for NW Pakistan

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Failure to meet the immediate needs of flood victims in a key province in northwest Pakistan could fuel the Taliban insurgency and pose a major regional security threat, the provincial chief minister said on Tuesday.

Villagers stand on an embankment while waiting for their turn to be given a boat to rescue their family members from flooded villages in Shahdadkot, some 105 kilometres (65 miles) from Sukkur, in Pakistan's Sindh province August 24, 2010. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The cost of flood relief has forced the government to suspend its 2010 development spending in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa province, although militancy remains strong there, Amir Haider Khan Hoti told Reuters in an interview.

“... if the government, if we fail to deliver, the situation is going to be disastrous and not only for this province but for Pakistan or for the region,” he said.

“As you know, this is the frontline province as far as the war on terror is concerned. This would be a disastrous situation for the entire international community.”

The government had planned to spend billions of dollars on development projects in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa province to win popular support and undermine militants, who often recruit Pakistanis disillusioned with the state.

The cost of immediate flood relief will delay those efforts, said Hoti. “We have compromised on our annual development plan and yesterday I suspended the entire new portfolio for our development plan for this province worth about 17 billion rupees (about $200 million) because of the floods,” he said.

“It’s really very difficult for us to manage both fronts because, as you know, we have been facing an insurgency and we have been trying our level best, pooling all our resources and investing where it was required to fight this war on terror.”

The floods have wiped out villages, roads, bridges and jobs and will inflict long-term economic pain on the government, which has been widely criticised for what is seen as a sluggish response to one of the worst disasters in Pakistan’s history.

Islamist groups, some suspected of ties to militant groups, have moved quickly to fill the gap.

The provincial government was hoping to invest at least one billion dollars in the Swat valley alone -- a former Taliban bastion -- to create jobs, repair infrastructure and schools and build up security forces to prevent a comeback by the militants.

Now it and the federal government have been overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding Swat and other areas devastated by the floods. It will cost an estimated 180 billion rupees to rebuild the northwest.

“In the worst affected districts ... whatever we gained in the past 30 to 40 years as far as development is concerned, infrastructure is concerned, we lost that in just a few hours,” Hoti said.

“We have lost everything in most of the districts. We have got to start from scratch now.”

The floods struck over three weeks ago, just after the U.S.-backed government had reported substantial progress against the Taliban, who have proved resilient despite a series of military offensives in their heartland.

Hoti predicted the Taliban would try to turn the floods to their advantage.

“They have been trying their level best to stage a comeback in most of the areas and now after this superflood, for the Taliban this is an opportunity. And of course they would like to exploit the situation,” he said.

“We have got to reach out to these (flood) affected people because we can’t afford a failure here. That would mean a total disaster for everyone.”

(Editing by Chris Allbritton and Tim Pearce)

For more Reuters coverage of Pakistan, see: here