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Friday, November 26, 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 experienced a catastrophic natural disaster that has precipitated a humanitarian crisis of major proportions. Widespread flooding affected about 20 million Pakistanis and inundated an area the size of Florida within the country. 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. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have estimated that the flooding has caused $9.7 billion in damages. While this figure might still be preliminary, it is almost certain that the negative effects of this crisis will be felt for many years to come.

The floods stemmed from abnormally heavy rains during the monsoon season in July and August, 2010. This led to flooding in the Indus River Basin which traverses Pakistan from north to south. Excess water led the Indus River and its tributaries to breach their levees and inundate adjacent and downstream floodplains. Approximately 2000 people were believed to have been killed by the flooding. One fifth of the country was submerged, and an estimated eight million Pakistanis were displaced from their homes. The number of people affected were significantly greater than several major disasters around the world since 2000. Little clean drinking water was available for many of the people who were affected and remains a problem today. Many of those affected, particularly children, face potential disease outbreaks, particularly diarrhea and cholera. The catastrophic loss of livestock and crop lands and extensive damage to the country’s infrastructure are projected to have long-term negative 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, and promoting nuclear non-proliferation, among others. The aftermath of the floods can 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 played in providing disaster relief. It may also provide militants an opportunity to garner favor with affected communities by giving militants an opportunity to demonstrate that they can provide assistance in areas where the government is absent. The crisis has also diverted attention and resources from other national 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 flooding 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 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: November 18, 2010
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: R41424
Price: $29.95

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