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Monday, September 27, 2010

Flooding in Pakistan: Overview and Issues for Congress

K. Alan Kronstadt, Coordinator
Specialist in South Asian Affairs

Pervaze A. Sheikh, Coordinator
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Bruce Vaughn, Coordinator
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Pakistan is in the midst of a catastrophic natural disaster that has precipitated a humanitarian crisis of major proportions. Widespread flooding has affected about 20 million Pakistanis and inundated an area the size of Florida. Congressional interest in the flooding stems from the significant humanitarian and economic implications for the country, and the security implications for U.S. interests in the region. While it is too early to fully assess the extent of the damage and the wide range of its ramifications, it is almost certain that the negative effects of the crisis will be felt for many years to come.

The floods stem from abnormally heavy rains during the monsoon season in July and August, which led to flooding in the Indus River Basin which runs from the north to the south of Pakistan. Excess water led the Indus River and its tributaries to breach their levees and inundate adjacent and downstream floodplains. Some 1,750 people are believed to have been killed. One fifth of the country was submerged, and an estimated eight million Pakistanis were displaced from their homes. The numbers affected are significantly greater than several recent disasters around the world combined. Little clean drinking water is available for many of the people who have been affected. Many of those, particularly children, are now in danger of disease outbreak, particularly diarrhea caused by ingesting stagnant water, and malaria. The catastrophic loss of livestock and crop lands and extensive damage to the country’s infrastructure are projected to have devastating long-term effects on Pakistan’s food security and economic performance.

Pakistan is at the center of several crucial U.S. interests, including fighting terrorism and religious militancy, seeking stability in neighboring Afghanistan, promoting nuclear non-proliferation, among others. The floods have the potential to affect broad political and strategic dynamics in Pakistan and the region in a number of ways. The crisis may undermine the already waning legitimacy of the civilian government by demonstrating its ineffectiveness to large numbers of Pakistanis in need of public services, while improving the status of Pakistan’s powerful military by the more visible role it has played in providing disaster relief. It may also provide militants an opportunity to garner favor with affected communities by giving them an opportunity to demonstrate that they can provide assistance in areas where the government is absent. The crisis will also likely divert attention and resources from other priorities, at a time when Pakistan remains financially strapped.

U.S. interests are served by a stable Pakistan that can effectively rule all its territory. Any crisis on a scale of the present floods that undermines the Pakistani state’s ability to control its territory has the potential to undermine U.S. interests. The inability of Pakistan to fully extend its authority into areas along its northwest frontier with Afghanistan has allowed Islamist militants hostile to the United States to find refuge. The current floods have already diverted Pakistani resources and focus away from its struggle with Islamist militants. This has the potential to indirectly affect U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan by taking pressure off militants on the Pakistani side of the international frontier. On a more positive note, the crisis presents the United States with an opportunity to improve its poor image among Pakistanis through provision of humanitarian assistance. Congress will play an important role in overseeing such assistance in the near term, and broad foreign assistance strategies for rebuilding infrastructure and other development goals in the medium and long run. For more information on environmental issues and Pakistan, see CRS Report R41358, Security and the Environment in Pakistan. For broader discussion of U.S.- Pakistan relations, see CRS Report R41307, Pakistan: Key Current Issues and Developments.

Date of Report: September 21, 2010
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: R41424
Price: $29.95

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