By Michael Kugelman,
Pakistan’s Polarization Undermines Crisis Response
As world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly this week, the organization estimated that Pakistan’s catastrophic floods have now displaced nearly 8 million people. A health crisis looms: Floodwaters have triggered outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and dengue fever. Thousands of pregnant women and more than 3 million children require immediate care. Authorities estimate it could take as long as six months for the floodwaters to fully recede.
I visited Pakistan last week. Unsurprisingly, the mood was glum—even fatalistic—with many of my interlocutors in the media, business community, academia, and the government concluding that Pakistan is in over its head. They have pinned their hopes on more international assistance.
To its credit, Pakistan’s government is trying its best to address the crisis. I visited the National Flood Response and Coordination Center, which is managing Islamabad’s flood response, and met committed staffers doing everything possible to keep relief efforts moving. The center frequently updates information on the aid provided and where it is going, along with detailed data about international assistance. But the main message was: “We need help.”
At the National Flood Response and Coordination Center, I thumbed through binders with aerial images of dozens of flood-affected areas, where agricultural land has turned into lakes. The good news, I was told, is that Pakistan has largely completed rescue efforts, with affected people moved away from flooded areas. But relief efforts are the problem. Although people are now on higher ground, they’re not receiving enough food, shelter, or health care. Journalists told me they had spoken to many displaced Pakistanis who said they’ve received no aid at all.
Some of those I spoke to insisted Pakistan shouldn’t just beg for aid, that it should also take the flood crisis as a wake-up call to strengthen ecological governance to reduce the scale of damage in future emergencies. But this doesn’t play well politically. Neither Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari nor Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman has acknowledged the need for policy change at home. Both belong to the party that governs Sindh province, which has been the worst-hit province by the flooding.
Pakistan has continuously issued appeals for international assistance. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, now the opposition leader, has held three telethons to raise money for flood relief from supporters in the Pakistani diaspora. Aid is arriving—but perhaps not fast enough. With the global economy buffeted by supply chain shocks and high commodity costs as well as amid humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine, donor fatigue is a real problem. This week, UNICEF said it had reached only one-third of its $39 million appeal.
However, Pakistan’s biggest obstacle to addressing this crisis—and other crises, too—may not be a lack of international support but its political polarization. Throughout the floods, domestic politics have proceeded as usual, with the government and Khan waging bitter fights even with one-third of the country underwater. Islamabad has refused to suspend key by-elections on Sept. 29, and Khan has continued holding political rallies. Khan and his supporters have insinuated that the government shouldn’t be trusted with flood aid, and he has accused the ruling coalition of seeking to ban transmission of his telethons.
Despite this, Pakistan’s floods have been a top agenda point at a very busy U.N. General Assembly summit in New York. France has offered to host a conference to help Pakistan, and world leaders and celebrities are raising awareness and pledging solidarity. Pakistan needs to come together so it can mount an effective flood response and speak with one voice to the international community, but the flood crisis seems to have exacerbated its deep divides.