Pakistan floods offer chance for lasting change

Pakistan's latest flood miseries are an alarming reminder that a government which can't help its people will not long command their allegiance.

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Pakistan, independent since 1947, suffered major flooding in 1950, 1955, 1956, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1988, 1992, 1995 and 2003. Torrential rains, flooded villages, ruined crops, misery and dislocation are not, in short, a novelty. And yet decade after decade the country has made too little progress, or none, toward flood control works or even effective relief-delivery systems.

Video: Pakistan floods 2010

Taimur Khan, reporting from Pakistan's worst flood affected regions in 2010, speaks to Claudia Charlton about the progress in delivering aid and the plight of stranded villagers and refugees.

And so last year Pakistan's worst flooding on record was predictably catastrophic. To be sure, even the best plans could not have stopped the weight of water that covered a fifth of the country, killed 2,000 people, and damaged or wrecked the homes and livelihoods of 20 million more. But proper plans - de-silting, earthworks, limits on deforestation, harmonised administration and the like - might have reduced the losses.

Now another heavy monsoon has arrived. Again rivers have risen, and while the toll is not as high as last year, it is bad enough: southern Sindh province is awash, with millions affected and hundreds dead.

Again the world's aid agencies are doing what they can, while the government … well, the central government's persistent failure to control and mitigate flooding is the most striking example we can imagine of what's wrong with Pakistan today.

A state that keeps failing to help its people cannot hope to command their loyalty. Recurring failure on this scale leaves a country wide open to radicalising factions eager to tempt young men into armed extremism.

National security, against natural disaster and outside foes alike, is the basic responsibility of any government. And while the Pakistani state has invested billions in weaponry, flood control remains the unloved orphan child of a sad tangle of jurisdictions.

To be sure, none of this is the fault of the rural people - 43 per cent of Pakistan's labour force is employed in agriculture - and aid donations are urgently needed. Neither "compassion fatigue" nor dismay at bad governance will help those people, but donations may - if they reach the needy. Last year foreign donors were concerned that aid would end up in politicians' pockets if routed through Islamabad.

There were also suggestions last year that powerful landlords diverted water into villages, with government acquiescence, to protect their own crops.

President Asif Ali Zardari dealt with last year's flood crisis by flying off to Europe. This year he has cancelled his UN trip. That's a start, but the government is still painfully far from serving Pakistan's people.