The Indus Floods and “disaster diplomacy”

August 29, 2010

Disasters have been viewed as an opportunity to let humanitarian considerations forge détente in hostile environments. The opportunity is seldom utilized optimally, although assistance is often offered and taken. This post reflects on the mutual impact of the Indus floods and international relations in SouthAsia.


The Indian subcontinent, now South Asia, derives its name and its definition from the Indus basin. Inevitable then, that the 2010 Indus floods that are devastating Pakistan should spill over into (and reflect) the region’s international relations.

Disasters have been viewed as an opportunity to let humanitarian considerations forge détente and breakthroughs in hostile environments. The opportunity is seldom utilized optimally, although assistance is often offered and taken. The examples are legion: the 1988 Armenian earthquake, the fire haze in Southeast Asia in 1997, the 2004 tsunami and 2005 Kashmir earthquakes, to start with.

Pakistan floods-a timeline,, August 12, 2010.

At the end of July, an unusually heavy monsoon led to floods in the Indus in Baluchistan, and within weeks, the rivers of the Indus system were flooding across the length of Pakistan . The situation is very grave as Pakistan grapples with what the UN Secretary-General described as a “slow-motion tsunami” and the worst disaster he had ever seen ().

Some reports that capture the scale of the disaster:

UN reports more Pakistanis in need of help as unrelenting floods spread, UN News Centre, August 27, 2010.
Adil Najam, Number of the day: 175,000,000, All Things Pakistan, August 17, 2010.
Beth Buczynski, Five shocking facts about the Pakistan floods,, August 29, 2010
Huma Imtiaz, Aisha and the millions without an umbrella, The New Indian Express, August 29, 2010.
Sonya Rehman, ‘Stench of dead bodies was overpowering’, The New Indian Express, August 29, 2010.

Humanitarian agencies, Pakistani and global, have swung into action. However, in spite of the scale of the disaster, governmental responses have been slow and muted.  This has been attributed to many factors: the public perception of Pakistan around the world, donor fatigue after Haiti, poor media coverage.

Simon Tisdall and Maseeh Rahman, Pakistan flood toll rises but international aid fails to flow,, August 10, 2010.
Pakistan’s ‘image deficit’ hurting aid funds flow: UN, Indian Express, August 16, 2010.
Jude Sheerin, Who cares about Pakistan? BBC News, August 21, 2010.
Donald G. Mcneil Jr., Disaster Strategy: The Soft Heart and the Hard Sell, New York Times, August 21, 2010.
Mira Veda,  Lack of Media Coverage for Pakistan Floods = Lack of Aid, Huffington Post, August 25, 2010.
Ayesha Siddiqa, Delivery of flood relief, Express Tribune, August 29, 2010.

India, facing floods in the north on a smaller scale and drought in the east, was slow to offer assistance. It took a week for Pakistan to accept the offer, controversially. The USD 5 million package will be routed through the United Nations, in deference to Pakistani wishes.

After dithering, India offers flood aid to Pak, Deccan Herald News Service, August 13, 2010.
IANS, Reject India’s flood aid: Pak newspaper, IBNLive, August, 15, 2010.
Pak thanks India for aid, sends mangoes for PM,, August 20, 2010.
Press Trust of India, Pakistan accepts flood aid, India offers more,, August 20, 2010.
Sean Maroney, Pakistani Analysts Respond to Indian Flood Aid with Caution, VOANews, August 21, 2010.

Two positive developments can be seen at the civil society level, both of which overcome political barriers to facilitate the flow of information and assistance across otherwise impassable borders.

The first is the use of the Internet, especially Twitter, to communicate the nature and the scale of the problem. Apart from the usual tweeting of headlines and retweeting of appeals for help, Pakistanis have used Twitter to describe first-hand the devastation that they are seeing. They have been writing in from relief camps and from flood sites. In a climate of skepticism, they have pointed out local NGOs with a reputation for integrity and grassroots work.

Here is a sampling from the last few days:

@marvi_memon, August 29, 2010: “THose families who hav tents hav ration-others dont-so they were requestin-i told them relief suk in kchi due2loot on way)
@ RumaisaM, August 29, 2010: More deaths feared in Pakistan as flood waters recede // #CNN.
@AdilNajam, August 28, 2010: Preparing Your Relief Contribution for Flood Victims: Some Helpful Tips… about 13 hours ago
@sanasaleem, August 28, 2010: Tents,Clean water,ORS, needed besides ration. Dire need of tents! #pkfloods
@mosharrafzaidi, August 26, 2010: @aasif_mandvi list of UN agencies, International NGOs & Pakistani NGOs that have good cred at this link – Tks again.

South Asian NGOs have also tried to create channels through which Indians can donate to Pakistani NGOs, working around political barriers. The best example is from Himal Southasian, which featured on this blogger’s New Year list of “SouthAsian of the Decade.”

Himal Southasian Indus Flood Relief Fund Collection Drive

It would seem that the ability of governments to move quickly in the face of disasters is limited by policy precedent and public opinion, but sections of the same public move just as quickly to get around constraints placed by government policy. These channels and initiatives contribute to changing the environment in which diplomatic relations work and in the long run to mitigating the constraints that limit government action. “Disaster diplomacy” is then, public diplomacy in the best sense: outreach by the public in the larger public interest.

Postscript: Looking for a fight is a hard habit to surrender. After writing this post, I saw this article: “India, Pak now squabble over water,” MSN News, August 29, 2010.  Bookmark this issue for observation!

Other writing by me on disasters and international relations:
Security lessons amid disaster ruins, InfoChange India, December 2008.
Silver Linings: Natural Disasters, International Relations and Political Change in South Asia, 2004-5,  Defense & Security Analysis, Volume 22, Issue 4 December 2006 , pages 451 – 468.
Post-Tsunami International Relations: A Sea Change? (94 kb in PDF), Chaitanya Brief, Volume I, Number 2, June 2005.

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