Although it is wracked by floods, violence, and other tragedies, this small story from rural Pakistan caught my eye recently:
SHIKARPUR: Ten people were killed in an armed clash between Magsi and Qambrani tribes in the jurisdiction of Golodaro police station on Thursday evening.
According to sources, the gunbattle followed a brawl over irrigation of paddy crops near Kuddan village.
The sources said the Qambrani tribe lost seven men while the Magsi tribe lost three.
Sanaullah Abbasi, a senior police official, told Dawn five bodies had been recovered.
A big police contingent stormed the village late in the evening and brought the situation under control.
This story encapsulates several important realities about Pakistan: declining resources, the increasing violence over the declining resources and the inability of the government to control this violence.
This is a miniature of the violence that has recently wracked Karachi – also fundamentally a conflict over land and resources. These riots are unfortunately endemic to Pakistan’s commercial capital. Just two years ago, on the weekend that the world watched as Mumbai suffered from an overflow of Pakistan’s internal disorder, Karachi was suffering its own outbreak of violence in which at least 40 people were killed, not unlike the recent fighting.
The great fear of the West is Pakistan falling under the control of radical Islamists. The great fear of Pakistan’s leadership is the state fracturing (this is probably #2 for the West – a nuclear Yugoslavia.) But the endemic low level violence suggests another possibility, the state dissolving – a nuclear Somalia.
Medium and Long-Term Dangers
Meanwhile the terrible flooding is testing the capabilities of Pakistan’s institutions and they are failing. Their record at providing immediate relief is mediocre. But the floods have destroyed Pakistan’s crops, so that the country (which is already broke) will be forced to buy or beg food abroad. It will be several years before Pakistan’s agricultural production will return to their previous levels – so food shortages will be an ongoing problem. Even without the crisis food security was a problem in Pakistan. In addition, cotton crops, essential to Pakistan’s major export industry – textiles – have also been devastated. All of this can only further weaken an already precarious economy.
Assuming the floods and their aftermath do not lead to state dissolution it certainly weakens Pakistan for facing its longer-term crises. The flooding is linked to the deterioration of Pakistan’s extensive irrigation system. Pakistan is facing a long-term water shortage (discussed in some detail in a series of articles here.) Even if Pakistan recovers quickly from the current disaster, this longer-term trend is ominous. Worse, it dovetails with another serious long-term problem – Pakistan’s rapidly growing population. The current population of about 180 million could easily double in about forty years. This means that a country that is already straining to feed itself and possessing declining water resources will face an enormous number of additional mouths to feed. The potential international ramifications are dark indeed – water wars with India, enormous refugee crises, Islamist run mini-states, and of course loose nukes.
Policy Option: Encourage Reforms
It is possible that this crisis offers Western donors one last great chance to help stabilize Pakistan and prevent these worst-case scenarios from coming to pass. With its utter dependence on foreign assistance, in theory, donor nations should have tremendous leverage to press for reforms – reconstruction of the irrigation system, increasing women’s literacy, reforming Pakistan’s tax collection, and perhaps even pressing for improved relations with India. If the floods can help sweep away Pakistan’s corrupt civilian elites (starting with the Bhutto family) then some good will have come with this tragedy.
There are three enormous problems with this plan. The first is that donor nations may simply be unwilling to fund these projects. Pakistan has long been a recipient of international aid and it has been very good at parleying its prime geopolitical real estate into international support. The second problem is leverage – it is very hard to get other governments of other countries to do things. So far efforts to press Pakistan to embrace reforms have been stymied by its embedded interests. The feudal landholders and businesspeople oppose economic reforms, the military opposes reforms in security policies, and Islamists oppose social reforms.
Finally there is the question of implementation. Even if resources and good will exist, actually implementing necessary reforms – such as improving women’s literacy (which is heavily correlated with lower birth rates) – is an enormous challenge. Efforts to put girls in school will face entrenched local customs. Rebuilding the irrigation canals will have to be done against the wishes of local rent-seeking leaders and reforming Pakistan’s tax collection has been the recommendation of every single survey of Pakistan’s economy for the past several decades.
Even if everything were done right there is a good chance that it would not work and Pakistan would become unsustainable. Policy-makers and analysts should begin thinking about what happens if Pakistan dissolves. Naturally, Pakistani leaders will assume that such planning is in fact a plot to dismantle their country.
Thinking through these worst-case scenarios allows planning for them. This is essential since it may be a reality that occurs no matter what Western donors attempt to do. It also permits a cost-benefit analysis. It is possible, that all things considered, a Pakistan held together by duct tape and Western aid is the least bad option. But other possibilities should be considered as well.