September 22, 2010 / 10:10 AM / 9 years ago

Flood refugees threaten Pakistan political stability

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Millions of people forced to flee their homes by Pakistan’s worst ever floods may emerge as the most explosive issue for a feeble government in the wake of a disaster that will strain the economy for years to come.

Villager displaced by flooding wades through floodwaters as his daughter carries supplies while returning to their flooded village of Bello Patan, in Pakistan's Sindh province September 21, 2010. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Pakistan was already under growing pressure to deal with over one million people forced from their homes by fighting between the army and homegrown Taliban militants in the northwest.

Now it has to devise a comprehensive strategy to tackle a wider crisis — 10 million people displaced by the floods — that could create political instability in a frontline state in the U.S. war on militancy.

“If these people are not somehow accommodated and their issues are not addressed in terms of basic shelter, basic food, medical care and rehabilitation and in terms of livelihood, then we are looking at potentially large social unrest,” said Kamran Bokhari, South Asia director at STRATFOR global intelligence firm.

“Dislocation by itself can bring down states and governments, in theory.”

To tackle the problem, the cash-strapped government has to come up with vast funds, work out complicated logistics and, most importantly, prove it can take charge after the military did most of the heavy lifting during flood relief and rescue operations.

Leaving displacement issues to the powerful military as well could further undermine the state’s credibility.

Analysts say that while a army-led coup is highly unlikely, the military may feel inclined to take measured action if the government completely fails to help those displaced by the floods, especially since the Taliban could recruit flood victims who give up on the state.

FIRST WAR, THEN FLOODS

“In a situation of crisis when the civilian government loses legitimacy, it may be easy for the military to either manipulate the government from the sidelines, or indirectly bring in its own men to replace the government,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

Critics say the government and the army have been pressuring people displaced by fighting to return home, despite security fears and lack of resources to rebuild.

Former Taliban stronghold Swat Valley, one of the areas hardest hit by the floods, highlights the multiple layers of the displacement problem.

Take farmer Niamat Ali Khan. The Taliban killed his brother, two uncles and kidnapped and tortured him, he said, so he fled his home and spent two years at a camp for refugees.

After receiving assurances from the military, Khan said, he returned home. Then the floods swept away his home and land.

“I have no money to rebuild my home and the government has not helped us so far despite promises,” he said.

The authorities may not be able to offer assistance for a long time. Flood damages are likely to run into the tens of billions of dollars, money Pakistan will struggle to secure.

There are also other problems.

The World Bank and the U.S. have urged Pakistan to take steps to reassure donors that it is capable of using their flood aid responsibly and transparently.

The International Crisis Group think tank said in a report the floods have turned displacement into a “national disaster of mammoth proportions” and urged the government to handle it.

“Given the scale of the needs, there may be a temptation among donors to circumvent civilian structures and work directly with the military to deliver aid, but this would be a dangerous choice,” says Samina Ahmed, its South Asia Project Director.

“The military should certainly provide logistical support, but only under control of the civilian government and in support of the latter’s objectives.”

(Additional reporting by Junaid Khan in Swat, Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Gul Yusufzai in Quetta)

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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