COMMENT: The politics of floods —Zaair Hussain - Friday, August 20, 2010

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Politics would never have been relegated for disaster relief, and so we should not waste our indignation, or any other resources, decrying this. What we must do is ensure that disaster relief is not relegated for politics

For the first time in my memory, I felt the stalwart hearts of Lahore — mine included — tremor and cringe at the soft but swift clatter of raindrops against roofs and bodies and asphalt. In the past few weeks, the playmate of the nation, long welcomed by laughing children and relieved farmers, had fully unsheathed its darker nature and drowned its adorers. Gratitude and laughter had turned to screams and then sobs and then, horrifically, silence.

The Taliban and their sympathisers, ever the standard-bearers of perversion, have filled our ears with hateful suggestions that the floods are biblical not just in scope but in nature, a divine punishment coupled with a cleansing.

It is obviously self-evident that the floods are a force of nature, and destroy good and bad alike. The ‘Noah’ hypothesis is merely the insane ranting of zealots who see an unprecedented, unfathomable human disaster as a golden opportunity to press their agenda atop a bridge of broken corpses and shattered lives. So why even mention them?

Because although their opportunism is unique in extent, it is common in kind.

We should not be so naive as to believe that politics will suspend itself for something so trifling as the greatest natural disaster in our history. I have never doubted that in the event of, say, a nuclear winter, our leaders will clamour ferociously for the underground bunker with the most impressive name, and that our media will spend hours a day highlighting, as the warheads fall around us, which politicians slipped on the radioactive frost.

Politics would never have been relegated for disaster relief, and so we should not waste our indignation, or any other resources, decrying this. What we must do is ensure that disaster relief is not relegated for politics.

So far, we have done poorly.

As lives were washed away, the opposition stood to crucify the president for his absence, which, ultimately, was no more or less important than his presence would have been. As men, women and children lay displaced and dead and dying, the media obsessed over the president’s visit and an unsuccessful assault upon his person with a shoe. The president and his cabinet, not to be outdone in this grotesque marathon of criminal mis-prioritisation, denied an event that occurred in front of an audience and video cameras.

As real sufferers from the floods — in the untold thousands — waited desperately for relief, the prime minister, in the worst possible taste, posed for a photo-op inside a medical facility spun entirely from whole cloth, complete with paid actors playing the parts of patients.

We stand at the end of the world and scrabble and cheat for petty coin.

Flood politics run beyond the domestic; the US and other foreign donors are understandably leery of the swift aid being delivered by religious and quasi-extremist outfits. But no application of political spin, however judicious or grand, can make criticisms of badly needed relief look good. There is no doubt that militant-affiliated groups are giddily twisting this tragedy into an opportunity to enlarge their footprint over the hearts and minds of the people. But a moment like this is too profound to turn into a clash of symbolisms. Secular donors and the government must look these groups in the eye and outmatch them, presence for presence, aid for aid.

Why has the response been more torpid, less keen than the response for the earthquake? Personally, I believe that a flood simply lacks the lethal poetry of an earthquake. Ninety thousand dead in a matter of minutes is a visceral imagery that cannot be easily turned; floods are positively blasé by comparison. But if earthquakes are nature’s tactical strikes, floods are its slow poison. One in every eight people in the country has suffered nature’s bout of limitless fury, and only time will peel back the first layers of destruction to reveal the full measure of the losses. Every drop makes the calamity, in an almost imperceptible way, worse. We are being drip-fed devastation.

We must tear our eyes away from the dark comedy of errors being performed upon our political stage. What has it proved? That our leaders are under-qualified and hopeless in a crisis? We have surely recovered from that shock by now. In theory, politicians lead by example. It is a theory I would be glad to espouse in a classroom full of bright and malleable minds. Here and now, we must lead them.

We must resist the paralysing calculus of despair. Whatever we do, however much we do, we will not save every soul in peril, and we will not mend all that is broken. But every inch we can save is worth fighting for. We are not utterly floundering, not completely without direction. Aid camps have spread across the country like bright petals upon dark waters; thousands of NGOs have taken up arms against a literal sea of troubles. We must join them in any capacity we can, and know that every live saved, every home rebuilt, every meal given is a victory. We must support and commend and hold to task the joint committee being formed by the political parties, rather than dismiss it in a well-practised but unhelpful wave of cynicism.

When nature in its mystery chooses to act, it can kill on an apocalyptic scale but is utterly incapable of murder. Human beings, conversely, can even sometimes murder, especially when they do not act at all.

Zaair Hussain is a Lahore-based freelance writer. He can be reached at

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