Pakistan's Flood of Cash

How Aid Made Flood Management Worse

This July, torrential monsoon rains caused widespread flooding in Pakistan. More than 20 million people have been affected (12 percent of the population), at least four million have been left homeless, and nearly 2,000 have died. The tragedy may have dominated headlines, but Pakistan is not the only country to have experienced floods. Benin was also hit by massive floods this year. These historic floods covered two-thirds of the country and affected close to 700,000 people (8 percent of the population) and killed 43. Benin’s government, acting with far fewer resources, outperformed the relief efforts of Pakistan's goverment. Although no one can blame the Pakistani government for bad luck and bad weather, it should have been held accountable for the colossal scale of the devastation. Instead, it has been rewarded.

Speaking at the Asia Society in August, Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Pakistan, explained “The water has affected everyone. It's an equal-opportunity disaster." Accordingly, he called for billions of dollars in U.S. and international assistance. But his assessment was wrong: there was nothing equal about the disaster.

After a string of severe floods in the 1970s, Pakistan set up the Federal Flood Commission FFC to build barrages and dykes to control future flooding. By 2010, the FFC reported that it had finished approximately $900 million in flood-management construction. But in reality, little work had been completed. In many cases, dyke construction was carried out privately by wealthy individuals rather than as part of a coherent central plan. Many communities in flood-prone zones even had to pay bribes to get any flood control or irrigation projects at all.

As this year’s disaster unfolded, there was also no systematic management of flood-mitigation efforts. Some local officials reinforced their dykes; others allowed them to fail. One local official acknowledged that "local government figures in the Sindh Province conspired with prominent landowners to bolster the riverbank running through their property and others deemed important, at the expense of other regions, which were left vulnerable to flood waters.” And The Express Tribune, a Pakistani affiliate of the International Herald Tribune, Khursheed Shah, the minister of labor and manpower, prevented breeches from being made in the canals close to his constituency, even though that would have substantially relieved the flooding in the entire Sindh province. Such measures had greatly helped control the floods in the 1970s, but Shah was not willing to jeopardize his cronies’ interests. Instead, the poor and ethnic minorities bore the brunt of the flooding.

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