"Katrina on Steroids": More from Adil Najam on Pakistan Flooding

Last week, On Point heard from Boston University professor Adil Najam about the flooding in his native Pakistan. The segment brought out a passionate response from listeners. The university’s news site BU Today just caught up with Najam again. It’s a good update on Najam’s thinking, as the disaster continues to unfold.

Najam says the U.S. really needs to step up with aid — but do it in the right spirit. “If we do it out of real compassion, then maybe, just maybe, we could actually turn this relationship on its head and make it one based on real trust,” Najam says.

The following is from an interview with writer Caleb Daniloff:

How would you help Americans comprehend the epic scale of this disaster?
Najam: Think of the Pakistan floods as Katrina on steroids. The numbers are mind-boggling and mind-numbing: 20 million people are affected, which is more than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined; 20 percent of Pakistan’s landmass is now affected. That is greater than the size of all England, all Bangladesh, and some 140 different countries. One out of every nine Pakistanis is affected. The number is greater than the entire population of countries like Sri Lanka, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and over 150 different countries: 6 million are in life-threatening conditions, 3.5 million children are at risk of life-threatening diseases, 2 million need immediate shelter assistance. But the most telling number is that only half a million of these are currently being reached by any relief or assistance.

Did humans play a role in the magnitude of this catastrophe?

The rains are clearly a natural phenomenon. But there is nothing natural about the death and destruction these rains have brought. That is human-manufactured, or at least human-enhanced. Arrogant policies that have disregarded the ecological integrity of the natural systems we depend upon have magnified the fury of the torrents that have been sweeping across Pakistan. Deforestation in the north has robbed nature of its natural barriers, and bad urban planning has made urban streets turn into torrential rivers.

Is climate change partly to blame?
It would be premature to say whether these floods are directly related to climate change or not, but they are a good reminder for all of us of why we should be thinking of climate change. And fast. Whether climate change brings havoc at this horrific scale or not, it will make our climate more unpredictable and uneven. I hope we will learn from what we have been seeing and plan for a more sustainable development in the rebuilding process, and also realize that it is the poorest amongst us—those least responsible for causing it—who will suffer its gravest consequences.

After the Haiti earthquake, many Americans may be suffering from donor fatigue.
While so-called donor fatigue can be understood, “compassion fatigue” cannot. There can be many reasons why we cannot give as generously at one time as we did at another, but there should be no reason why we should not be able to feel the humanity and human pain in such a catastrophe. What is required as much as the donor dollars is just signs of human compassion for this human tragedy. Fatigue cannot be an excuse for that.

Will Pakistan’s democratic progress be affected by this disaster?

One hopes that it will not be affected. But one also fears that the flood could destroy Pakistan’s fragile democracy the same way it has destroyed everything else in its path. This had happened earlier in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) with the 1970 Bhola cyclone. This time, too, you have a very fragile government, very low domestic trust in governance, shaky and undependable international allies, and a confluence of calamities—man-made and natural. These cannot be favorable conditions for the nourishment of democracy even in the best of polities. 


How real is the fear that the Taliban or other extremist groups could swoop in with aid and recruiting materials?
I think the fear is not unreal, but it is overblown. I also find the focus and priority being invested in that fear to be demeaning to the much bigger human concerns that are being ignored. It demonstrates our own preoccupation with the Taliban rather than the real priorities of the people whose lives have been destroyed. If, indeed, the Taliban increase their foothold after this, they will do so not because of what they do, but will do so because of what we do not do. 

What opportunities does this situation open up for U.S.-Pakistan relations?

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is based on mutual distrust. Pakistanis think about the United States exactly what Americans think about Pakistan. Neither has any trust in the other, but both think they need the other. This has been a recipe for disaster, for Pakistan as well as for the United States. This could, indeed, be an opportunity to build real trust and respect. But that trust won’t be built if we respond to this flood only as a strategic opportunity. The way to build that trust is to show real compassion and real humanity. If we do it out of strategic intent only, we will end exactly where we began: at a transactional relationship. If we do it out of real compassion, then maybe, just maybe, we could actually turn this relationship on its head and make it one based on real trust.


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