Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Indus Flood and Pakistan's Internal Fault Lines

A recent AP report highlights the deep distrust plaguing relations between the different parts of the country, and especially the animosities toward the Punjab region, Pakistan's richest.  A project to build a new dam (the Kalabagh) along the Indus has been on the books for awhile.  It would provide a new source of ample, much-needed electricity for the national grid, and would also help regulate and disperse floodwaters - a need that the recent floods - now cited as the most catastrophic natural disaster in the country's history - spotlighted.

Unfortunately, that project has been a non-starter because farmers in Pakistan's provinces downstream from the Punjab, such as Sindh, are convinced that Punjabis will hog most of the water and leave them without enough.  One's first impulse, sitting in one's armchair or at one's desk, might be to exhort the Sindhis with that all-American imprecation to "lead, follow, or get out of the way," but the fact of the matter is that an examination of the recent history of dam-building and water release along the Tigris and Euphrates suggests that the Sindhis may have reason to be concerned.  Iraqis especially have been dealing with major water shortages over the last 20 or more years - caused to some extent by persisting drought, but even more so by dam projects in both Syria and Turkey that have enabled those countries to divert more water for their own uses, leaving Iraqis increasingly desperate, their leaders insisting that countries upstream need to be more fair in dealing with the issue.  Syria and Turkey protest and proclaim their even-handedness, but the fact is that their geographic situation upstream along those two historically vital waterways gives them a tremendous advantage, one that can use to extort cooperation from Iraq.

One might protest, in Pakistan's case: yes, but aren't they all Pakistanis?  Why can't they all just get along?  To do so would be to reveal our own deeply seated ignorance about Pakistan's founding and history.  For many Sindhis, the Punjab might just as well be another country.  And issues such as building this dam, combined with the fissures that the recent Indus flooding have opened in Pakistan, the ongoing "Taliban" insurgency against the government, and the continuing ethnic and sectarian (mostly anti-Shia) violence, suggest that Pakistan may well be flirting with a descent into "failed state" status.

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