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Floods raise spectre of Pakistan social unrest

by Staff Writers
Islamabad (AFP) Aug 22, 2010
Nearly a month after Pakistan's worst ever natural disaster flooded a fifth of the country and hit 20 million people, the spectres of social unrest and Islamist extremism are stalking the nation.

Torrential rains have had a catastrophic impact on the impoverished, nuclear-armed nation, causing economic losses that could see Pakistan default on an IMF loan and leaving eight million people dependent on aid for survival.

While the international community has now donated almost 500 million dollars, domestic anger is mounting at the civilian government, which has staggered from crisis to crisis in the 30 months since its election.

Flood survivors camping out in miserable conditions -- up to six million of them still without shelter -- have staged angry, if isolated, protests against the government, shutting main highways and forcing police to mobilise.

Devastation to farmland and transport links mean that food prices have rocketed, fanning frustration among the masses already struggling to make ends meet and discontent among millions who have lost everything.

Inflation is already a burden for many. Pakistan has suffered an electricity crisis for years, but now the flood waters have forced power stations to close, exacerbating energy cuts and leaving entire communities without power.

"Alienation towards the government has increased and in the long run it can create internal instability. The opposition can cash in on that and in the long-term, Islamist militants can benefit," said analyst Hasan Askari.

"If the opposition joins (in protests), the unrest can be powerful, nobody knows what can happen," said Askari.

Pakistan's relatively free media has castigated the government response in chat shows, scathing editorials and a series of damaging news reports including allegations that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani visited fake relief camps.

An official prime minister's relief fund has collected just 17.5 million dollars, with many reluctant to donate to an administration widely painted as corrupt and bogged down in red tape and infighting.

So far opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party have yet to agitate en masse against the government.

As the PML-N heads the government in Punjab, Pakistan's breadbasket, its most heavily populated province and one of the worst hit areas, some observers believe the mainstream opposition could also come unstuck over the disaster.

In Muzaffargarh, one of the worst-affected districts of southern Punjab -- a region notorious as a Taliban recruiting ground -- officials openly admit it is beyond their capability to reach out to the 2.5 million local victims.

"People are blocking roads, looting food trucks and protesting for not getting relief," said Jamshaid Dasti, a local MP from the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by the hugely unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari.

"The situation could get out of control at some point."

In the southern province of Sindh, where flooding has ravaged valuable rice and cotton crops and killed livestock, Qaiser Bengali, an advisor to the chief minister, acknowledged the dangers.

"There is a great social risk. Food prices are really high, lots of crops have been destroyed and lots of cattle died, so if we don't pay attention to these issues, there will be huge demonstrations," he said.

"Pakistan is so fragile that the government can be threatened as soon as there is social unrest. It's less a matter of the government than a matter of stability of the state."

Concerns have been widely raised that in the long term hardline Islamic charities, which are exploiting the aid vacuum to provide welfare, could mirror patterns in Lebanon with Hezbollah and in the Gaza Strip with Hamas.

"People will say religious groups deliver, the state does not, so the power of the mosque and of the madrassa will get stronger," said Bengali.

Zardari warned last week, after witnessing anger first hand from flood survivors in Punjab, that "negative forces" could exploit the tragedy.

"They would take babies who become orphans and then put them in their own camps, train them as the terrorists of tomorrow," he said.

earlier related report
World urged to act on Pakistan or risk militant rise
Islamabad (AFP) Aug 20, 2010 - UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Pakistan faces a "slow-motion tsunami" as the flood-ravaged nation stepped up pleas for massive global aid, warning that Islamist militants could exploit the crisis.

Ban told a UN emergency fundraising session in New York on Thursday that the world had a duty to act while millions are still without shelter and a fifth of the country -- roughly the size of England -- submerged by flood waters.

"It is one of the greatest tests of global solidarity," Ban told the General Assembly meeting, saying that Pakistan was facing a "slow-motion tsunami."

Although weather forecasters say the monsoon systems are easing off and water levels receding, the fallout from three weeks of devastating floods that have left nearly 1,500 people dead is likely to last for years.

Pakistan and the United States have voiced growing fears that extremists may harness the discontent to further destabilise Pakistan's embattled government, or that unhappiness with relief efforts could fan social unrest.

"I stand before you as the voice of 20 million Pakistanis devastated by the floods," Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told the meeting in New York.

"The massive upheaval caused by the floods and the economic losses suffered by the millions of Pakistanis must be addressed urgently. We cannot allow this catastrophe to become an opportunity for the terrorists."

The nuclear-armed nation of 167 million is a top US foreign policy priority due to concerns over Islamist extremism.

Washington says its porous border with Afghanistan provides cover for militants to attack US-led troops fighting a nine-year insurgency there.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is also locked in battle with homegrown Taliban who have been blamed over a three-year bombing campaign that has killed more than 3,570 people.

In a poignant video message to the meeting, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged generosity, saying: "This is a defining moment -- not only for Pakistan, but for all of us."

Clinton raised US aid to 150 million dollars, while Britain said it planned to double its contribution to more than 99 million dollars.

Eight million flood survivors in desperate need of food, shelter and clean drinking water require humanitarian assistance to survive, as concerns grow over potential cholera, typhoid and hepatitis outbreaks.

In the southern province of Sindh, eight people, including four children, have died from skin and stomach diseases in the last three days, local government spokesman Jamil Soomro said Friday.

In central province Punjab, which together with Sindh are the most densely populated parts of Pakistan and the country's agricultural backbone, officials said water levels were going down and some key roads reopening.

Suhail Chaudhry, administration chief of the Layyah district, said people were returning to partially damaged homes. "We expect more will leave in large numbers over the next 2-3 days," he said.

The floods wiped out villages, farmland and infrastructure, and UN aid coordination body OCHA said more than 650,000 homeless families were still without basic shelter.

At camps for the displaced from across the country, survivors are battling with crippling heat, miserable sanitation and swarms of mosquitoes.

Many fled their homes with just the clothes on their backs and have been forced to drink contaminated water, causing diarrhoea and heightening fears over outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases.

At a camp in Sukkur, Sindh province, women and children queued patiently for a cooked meal -- dished out from vats in the back of a truck -- while others waited for basic medical care at a makeshift clinic.

Qureshi put the economic damage of the floods at 43 million dollars and the Financial Times reported Friday that Pakistan would ask the International Monetary Fund to restructure a 10.5 billion dollar loan agreed in 2008.

Islamabad has concluded that it is now impossible for it to meet the conditions of the lending programme agreed in 2008, the paper quoted Pakistani officials as saying.

The Asian Development Bank has said it will give two billion dollars to repair roads, bridges, power lines, homes, schools, medical facilities and farm structures, and the World Bank has promised to lend 900 million dollars.

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Commentary: Biblical catastrophe
Washington (UPI) Aug 20, 2010
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