Floods threaten Pakistan's 'engine of growth'

By Mike Wooldridge
World affairs correspondent, BBC News, Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab

Image caption, Displacement has brought loss and uncertainty to Punjab

Allah Bachai and her three children - Nasir, Koonjamai and Shaukat - feel they left everything behind them when they escaped the rising waters of the Indus River and ended up in a relief camp in Sadiqabad in southern Punjab.

Sitting inside her tent in the sweltering mid-afternoon heat, with her children at her side, she said their land was now part of the river and their crops had been destroyed by the flooding.

She said she would have no way of knowing now where their home once was.

That sense of loss and uncertainty about the future is mirrored across the region as the flooding disaster shows little sign of abating, and new fears are being expressed about the threat from water-borne diseases.

Transparency pledge

But there are aspects of the disaster that mark Punjab out from the other provinces that are affected - and they are a cause for particular worry in the longer term.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif calls the province "the engine of growth" for the whole country.

If the engine stalls for any length of time, Pakistan's economy will bear the consequences. And because of the damage that the flooding has inflicted on agriculture, the mainstay of the economy, it is already clear that there will be a significant impact.

No-one recognises that more than the chief minister, who decided that he needed to be seen at the helm of the relief operations in his province - in part perhaps to counter the widespread public criticism that the response to the disaster from politicians in general has been inadequate.

I joined Shahbaz Sharif on a Punjab government helicopter for one of his relief missions from the town of Rahim Yar Khan.

Image caption, Flooding from the swollen Indus at Rahim Yar Khan

We crossed the vastly swollen Indus - now no less than 18 miles wide - and then hovered over an embankment that remains above the level of the floodwaters. There were clusters of people on the embankment who had been reluctant to try to move to the tented relief camps because they wanted to salvage their animals.

Donning a harness, the chief minister pushed out small sackfulls of food supplies and bottles of drinking water eagerly seized by people, as the rotor blades kicked up swirling dust. A few minutes later, there was a second such drop of relief supplies.

We then landed at one of the tented camps in the area, where Mr Sharif spoke to the crowd, telling them about the food drops he had carried out and earning their applause. He also promised that the aid operation would be "transparent" and that assistance would go only to the deserving - not, as he put it, to fraudsters.

"I do not want to see the flood victims become an army of beggars," Mr Sharif told me when we returned to base. But he also said it could take years for Punjab to recover from the damage done by the flooding.

There are politics at play in some of the issues that have been raised over this disaster - in particular why there were not more effective flood control measures in place to help contain the impact of torrential monsoon downpours of the kind witnessed in Pakistan.

Mr Sharif rejects the charge levelled by a former chief minister of Punjab that his administration has been negligent, but he acknowledges the concern over the issue and says he is launching an inquiry of his own.

When the floodwaters do eventually recede, they will clearly leave much havoc in their wake.

Shahbaz Sharif is obviously determined that he will not be accused of invisibility at a time of crisis.

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