The Great Pakistan Deluge Never Happened
The "Worst Disaster" TV Didn't Cover
It's worth reviewing the events that most Americans hardly know happened:
The deluge began on July 31, when heavier than usual monsoon rains caused mudslides in the northwest of Pakistan. Within two days, the rapidly rising waters had already killed 800 people. On August 2, the United Nations announced that about a million people had been driven from their homes. Among the affected areas was the Swat Valley, already suffering from large numbers of refugees and significant damage from an army offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the spring-summer of 2009. In the district of Dera Ismail Khan alone, hundreds of villages were destroyed by the floods, forcing shelterless villagers to sleep on nearby raised highways.
The suddenly homeless waited in vain for the government to begin to deliver aid, as public criticism of President Asaf Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani surged. President Zardari's opulent trip to France and Britain (during which he visited his chateau in Normandy) at this moment of national crisis was pilloried. On August 8 in Birmingham, England, a furious Pakistani-British man threw both his shoes at him, repeating a famously humiliating incident in which an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at President George W. Bush. Fearing the response in Pakistan, the president's Pakistan People's Party attempted to censor the video of the incident, and media offices in that country were closed down or sometimes violently attacked if they insisted on covering it. Few or no American broadcast outlets appear to have so much as mentioned the incident, though it pointed to the increasing dissatisfaction of Pakistanis with their elected government. (The army has gotten better marks for its efficient aid work, raising fears that some ambitious officers could try to parlay a newfound popularity into yet another in the country's history of military coups.)
By August 5, the floods had taken an estimated 1,600 lives, though some aid officials complained (and would continue to do so) that the death toll was far larger than reported. Unlike the Haitian earthquake or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this still building and far more expansive disaster was initially greeted by the world community with a yawn. The following day, the government evacuated another half-million people as the waters headed toward southern Punjab. At that point, some 12 million Pakistanis had been adversely affected in some way. On August 7, as the waters advanced on the southernmost province, Sindh, through some of the country's richest farmlands just before harvest time, another million people were evacuated. Prime Minister Gilani finally paid his first visit to some of the flood-stricken regions.
By August 9, nearly 14 million people had been affected by the deluge, the likes of which had never been experienced in the region in modern history, and at least 20 percent of the country was under water. At that point, in terms of its human impact, the catastrophe had already outstripped both the 2004 tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. On August 10, the United Nations announced that six million Pakistanis needed immediate humanitarian aid just to stay alive.
On August 14, another half-million people were evacuated from the Sindhi city of Jacobabad. By now, conspiracy theories were swirling inside Pakistan about landlords who had deliberately cut levees to force the waters away from their estates and into peasant villages, or about the possibility that the US military had diverted the waters from its base at Jacobabad. It was announced that 18 million Pakistanis had now been adversely affected by the floods, having been displaced, cut off from help by the waters, or having lost crops, farms and other property. The next day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, surveying the damage, pronounced it was "the worst disaster" he had ever seen.
The following week a second crest of river water hit Sindh Province. On August 30, it submerged the city of Sujawal (population 250,000). The next day, however, there were a mere sixteen mentions of Pakistan on all American television news broadcasts, mostly on CNN. On Labor Day weekend, another major dam began to fail in Sindh and, by September 6, several hundred thousand more people had to flee from Dadu district, with all but four districts in that rich agricultural province having seen at least some flooding.
Today, almost six million Pakistanis are still homeless, and many have not so much as received tents for shelter. In large swaths of the country, roads, bridges, crops, power plants—everything that matters to the economy—were inundated and damaged or simply swept away. Even if the money proves to be available for repairs (and that remains an open question), it will take years to rebuild what was lost and, for many among those millions, the future will mean nothing but immiseration, illness and death.