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Flooding Sinks Pakistan In Mire Of Regional Divisions

Flood victims cross a temporary bridge as they flee flooded areas of Chakdara, a region in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in early August.
Flood victims cross a temporary bridge as they flee flooded areas of Chakdara, a region in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in early August.
Already reeling from economic, judicial, political, and security crises, Pakistan is now coping with the most devastating floods in the last 80 years.

Even with the aid money trickling in from the United States and other Western allies, it may take years or decades to get beyond this disaster. And the receding waters are exposing long-standing political, ethnic, and religious divisions at a time when the federation needs unity more than at any other moment in its history.

At first, complaints came from the Pashtun-dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province that the central government's assistance was insufficient and slow in coming to help people stranded in the Peshawar, Nowshera, Charsadda, Swat, and Shangla districts. Provincial authorities were incensed when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said Pakistan would not launch an international aid appeal.

The government, however, changed its position after the floods began moving south into the Punjab districts and forecasters were predicting even more rain to come. Despite being allied with the ruling Pakistan People's Party, the Awami National Party-led administration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa cried foul, charging that flood relief was being directed into Punjab while 95 percent of their province was flood-ravaged. Being on the front line of the U.S.-led struggle against terrorism, the province was also outraged because it felt U.S.-provided flood assistance was not reaching its people.

In a show of utter despair, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government called its own donor conference in Islamabad. An official with the Awami National Party admitted that some bureaucrats opposed the plan to hold their own regional disaster-relief conference, but the government will proceed with the August 20 event nonetheless.

Province Against Province

Adding fuel to the fire, Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab and a brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, called on the government to move ahead with the controversial Kalabagh Dam project, intended to safeguard Punjab from future floods. A few days later, Gilani himself voiced support for the megaproject, which is strenuously opposed by the Awami National Party because it would flood large swathes of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa although the revenue-generating power station would be located in Punjab. (The down-river Sindh Province also opposes the dam because it would deprive the province of its share of water from the Indus River.)

Internally displaced flood victims beg for food at a relief camp in Rajanpur district in Punjab Province.
Earlier, fearing these intense divisions among the three provinces, President Asif Ali Zardari declared the project shelved once and for all. But the Pakistan Muslim League (which a few months ago fought tooth and nail to keep the Pashtun-dominated Northwest Frontier Province from being renamed Pakhtunkhwa) is still struggling to revive the project.

Feeling betrayed, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government launched a tirade against the center and Punjab, accusing the two of saving Punjab while ignoring the plight of their district. The spokesman for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, said: "Construction of the dam is a message of destruction for Pashtuns. Since Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its people are also part of Pakistan, the prime minister is bound to take care of them as well. If he does otherwise, a sense of frustration would spread among the people rendered homeless by the floods and rains."

Such complaints are likely to become even more pointed in the days ahead as hunger and sickness spread among the displaced and aid continues to be slow or absent. In addition, the people and leaders of the province are angry that neither the prime minister nor the president nor any other leader from the central government visited the ravaged region during the first two weeks of the disaster.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the political wrangling is that a national upwelling of support and sympathy for the victims of the flooding has not materialized, as one did following the devastating Pakistan earthquake of October 2005. And the reason for this is clear.

Much of the practical support and energy for earthquake relief and other such efforts came from residents and businesses based in Karachi, the mega-city that is the commercial capital of Pakistan. But since 2005, that city has seen an ever-worsening wave of targeted killings mostly carried out by ethnic Muhajirs (an Urdu-speaking community that migrated from India and is affiliated with the Muttahidda Qaumi Movement party of the self-exiled leader Altaf Hussain) and Pashtuns. As a result, little material support now is coming from there to help the flood-ravaged Pashtun lands.

For their part, the nation's religious parties refused to attend a conference called by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government on August 14 to discuss coping with the disaster.

The disastrous floods -- which many observers may be just the first of many such calamities to come for Pakistan -- are sorely testing the country's national resolve and unity. If such a tragedy cannot bring this land together, what can?

Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL