As Flooding Spreads, Kavita Khory Keeps an Eye on Pakistan's Suffering

Monday, August 23, 2010 - 14:57

The following excerpts are from an article that originally appeared in the August 21 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

As misery mounts in Pakistan, keep an eye on the suffering, not the politics, local Pakistanis plead

By Suzanne Wilson

Raging floods, destroyed homes, flattened villages, washed out roads and bridges, ruined, rotting crops, an unknown number of dead and many thousands of displaced people--all have been part of the news stories from Pakistan in recent days.

But as she's read and watched and listened, Kavita Khory, a native of Pakistan who teaches politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, says the immediate horror may not even be the worst of it. The long-term consequences of Pakistan's unfolding nightmare, Khory said, may pose an even greater threat.

"How are you going to feed millions of people?" she asked, with so much of the country's grain and other crops ruined. How can the country's teeming cities, where resources were already stretched thin before the flooding, absorb an influx of refugees? How can a country where some areas lack basic health services avoid the spread of cholera and other diseases?

And how does Pakistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan, deal with the floods on top of being a flash point in the ongoing war against the Taliban and al-Qaida?

When asked if she had an answer to her own questions, Khory replied: "There isn't one.

"Pakistan has gone through so many things in the past." But its current and impending crises may be the most serious trial the country has ever faced, she said.

"The devastation is unprecedented. That much is clear."

The worst in 80 years

There is nothing new about monsoons in Pakistan [--] they come almost every year and last several months. This year, though, according to AP news reports, the rains were the heaviest since 1929, and possibly earlier. By the end of July, parts of the northwest region were under several feet of water. By early August, overflowing rivers were sending waters cascading south, flooding agricultural areas where much of the country's food is grown.

As crass as it sounds, the loss of life has been relatively low-- international relief organizations peg the number at about 1,600 so far; by contrast, the 2005 earthquake that hit parts of Kashmir killed about 80,000 people.

But as Khory and others point out, the floods have left an estimated 15 to 20 million people either homeless or in need of food, clean water, or medical attention. Much of the livestock many of the poor depend on drowned. And there are fears that severe food shortages, the result of all those destroyed crops, will show up in parts of the country that, though not flooded, will feel the aftereffects…

…The Pakistani government, whose slow response to the flooding has been an ongoing part of the news coverage, is currently headed by President Asif Ali Zardari.

A billionaire who has been accused in the past of skimming money meant for aid projects in Pakistan, Zardari took office after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in December 2007. He left Pakistan soon after the flooding began for a previously planned trips to France and England, where he was photographed in luxurious surroundings while his countrymen suffered.

Zardari is hardly the person you'd look to in a crisis, says Jay Demerath, a retired sociology professor at UMass who has studied religion and conflicts in Pakistan and other countries. Zardari has been roundly criticized for his response to the floods, Demerath said, but may be able to remain in office if only because his political opponents have little more standing and respect.

"Zardari is by no means a prince," he said, "but there aren't a lot of princes among them," he said.

Military mobilized

Kavita Khory said that while Zardari deserves the chorus of condemnations he's been getting, he is in fact little more than a figurehead, having recently been stripped of much of his authority.

In Pakistan right now, she said, "Give the military its due, it's the only government organization that has any capability to deal with this." Parts of the Pakistani army have been mobilized to deal with the flooding, she said, and have been working alongside some nongovernmental relief organizations.

Several media accounts in the United States have said the flooding is creating opportunities for groups with terrorist leanings to ingratiate themselves with the population by stepping in with offers of help and services.

Khory said she questions that assessment. "I think it's overblown, to be honest," she said. For one thing, she said, the devastation in Pakistan has likely affected those in extremist groups just as it has so many others.

"I don't think these organizations can do much on a large scale," she said.