Worse to come in Pakistan, but hope survives the floods

As the media attention on Pakistan's floods recedes, we are beginning to see signs that things are actually getting worse.

As the media attention on Pakistan's floods recedes, we are beginning to see signs that things are actually getting worse. Butchers have been arrested for selling the meat of animals that were killed by the floods amid a livestock shortage. Despite medical assistance being made available, disease is on the rise in all flood-affected regions. The inefficiency of the government continues to boggle the mind, but it is not all bad news. What is truly amazing is the response of ordinary citizens, especially young people, who seem completely untiring. Young men and women, even teenagers, travel to far flung areas to offer assistance, often having to spend the night away from home. In a society where "respectable" young women in the middle class do not stay out after dark, this is challenging very basic social norms.

As always, the principal actor during an emergency remains the military, and it is being stretched beyond its limits. It has to maintain a credible deterrent on the eastern border, continue to hold areas recaptured from the Taliban as well as administer those areas, expand its war against the Taliban, and now extend flood relief aid across the entire country. Indian analysts and even a couple of elected representatives in New Delhi have suggested that Indian forces be pulled back from the border to permit Pakistani forces to stand down and address domestic crises. Unfortunately, this is not likely to happen.

In the Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa region, virtually every single individual that I have spoken to is begging for the army to take over. In Sindh and Balochistan, the resentment against President Asif Ali Zardari and his government is peaking. People in Sindh province, even from Larkana, the traditional power base of the Bhutto clan, are also voicing discontent. The cost of rehabilitation is estimated in the tens of billions in dollars. People affected by the flood have been promised 20,000 Pakistani rupees (Dh853) as interim relief and 100,000 rupees to rebuild their houses. The latter sum would barely pay for a one-room house, but less than 20 per cent of interim relief has been doled out.

Aid funds are supposed to be paid by the National Data Recording Authority only after applicants' claims have been verified. However, to file a claim, an individual needs a national identity card, which most people do not have. The data authority has opened field offices to distribute identity cards, but people still have to travel long distances, first to get the card, then again to file an application, and finally to receive the aid. The logistics and the travel expenses mean this often does not happen.

"Some bus drivers don't charge us, but I am not a beggar. Why don't they [the government] come to us and just see for themselves?" one man from a village near Charsadda town in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa province, told me with tears in his eyes. Many families have reported that young men and teenagers have run away since the floods. While some certainly left to search for a new livelihood, it is equally certain that some have joined the militants.

But strides made by militant groups may have been overstated. While militant-orientated charities are involved in relief work, the majority of civilian efforts come from the educated youth. It is a fact that is commonly acknowledged by most people in flood-affected zones, and will have consequences for national unity in the future. The reason, despite notes of optimism, that I say the worst is yet to come is simply because winter is only a few months away. With a food shortage, spiralling prices, industries crippled by a lack of raw materials, and widespread power outages, how will millions of people with no roof over their heads react?

If there are massive riots, which is not entirely unlikely, what will the army do? Ideally, the democratic process should correct itself; the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan People's Party should quit. The opposition should move a motion of no confidence in the president and Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani should be asked to demonstrate his majority in parliament. When he fails to do so, which he would, an opposition coalition should take over until the next election.

But Mr Zardari swears he will leave the president's house only in an ambulance; Mr Gilani still claims the people's mandate. And nobody in the opposition seems inclined to challenge them. The MQM may have called for the military to intervene, but it has not left the ruling coalition. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the PML-N, has taken a noticeably soft stance as the government flounders. If events continue on the current course, the army could be backed into a corner. If widespread riots occur, it is unlikely that soldiers turn their guns on the people to save this government.

But that does not mean the army would take over - another military coup is not in the nation's interest. Instead, it is more likely that the army would force the reluctant opposition into action.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a former Pakistani infantry officer