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Flooding deepens age-old fissures in Pakistan

The army and aid organizations struggle to cope with the severity of a disaster that has killed more than 1,600 people and displaced millions.

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A map showing flooded areas in Pakistan
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; 11:41 AM


Even in the best of times, Pakistan is a tenuous federation riven by regional, ethnic, sectarian and class rivalries.

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These are not the best of times.

The South Asian nation is struggling to cope with cataclysmic floods that inundated every province, destroying infrastructure and leaving millions homeless. But instead of forging unity, the disaster seems to have deepened age-old fissures in ways that some analysts, aid workers and politicians warn are hobbling relief efforts and could incite strife over what is bound to be a prolonged recovery period.

Pakistan's four provinces, which have long battled each other for resources and influence, are engaging in cutthroat battles for shares of flood aid money. Well-connected landowners have been accused of diverting floodwaters to save their own properties while drowning those of the poor. Reports abound of relief denied to minorities and political opponents, while ethnic violence has flared as flood refugees stream into the tinderbox city of Karachi.

Islamist militants, meanwhile, appear to have launched a new wave of violence after weeks of relative silence. More than 110 people have been killed this month in bombings targeting minority sects and police.

"It's not a time of mudslinging and blaming each other, but time to unite in efforts to help those in dire need," Saad Rafiq, a lawmaker from the main opposition party, told parliament last week. If that does not happen, he said, "people would move toward major cities in the form of a storm, and no one would be able to stop it."

There has been little sign yet of widespread unrest. Sporadic squabbles and demonstrations have broken out among the nearly 21 million people affected by the flooding, but a surprising calm reigns in many tent camps. In many cases, private citizens have banded together to distribute aid.

Not so their leaders. At a parliamentary session on the floods last week, pledges of harmony were overshadowed by heated complaints about the federal government's muddled relief efforts and the failures of other provinces or parties.

That sort of political backbiting would likely occur anywhere after a disaster of such scale, which Pakistani government and relief officials say would also have severely challenged even developed nations. The floods covered one-fifth of the country, and 10 million people remain homeless even as pledges of international assistance have dramatically fallen.

But the acrimony carries a special weight in Pakistan, an ethnically diverse nation formed under the banner of Islam, but whose 63-year history has been marked by political upheaval and military coups. It has alarmed the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, who last week condemned reports of discrimination against minority flood refugees, which he said could "adversely impact on national unity."

There are separatist movements in three of four provinces, all of which harbor a resentment of Punjab, the wealthiest, most populous and influential province. Though Punjab was hard-hit by flooding, that anger still courses. Other regions have been outraged by Punjabi officials' assertion - backed by the prime minister - that much damage could have been averted had other provinces allowed construction of a controversial major dam that non-Punjabi leaders assert would harm their provinces by displacing residents and depriving them of water.

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