Ayesha Khan
(Former Chatham House Expert)

Ayesha Khan has recently returned from Pakistan.

President Asif Ali Zardari's indifference to the suffering of more than twenty million people during one of the worst floods in Pakistan's history is symptomatic of the nation's dysfunctional leadership that has repeatedly failed in the task of governing.

International policy failures, government corruption and geopolitics have prevented an adequate response for one of the most desperate populations in the world, plagued first by war and now a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions. On an army helicopter, from the air, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province is submerged in a sea of water. On dry land, its capital city Peshawar, is a panorama of white tents where millions of internally displaced are seeking refuge.

In the squalor, 32-year-old Bibi Gul tells me this is the second time she has been displaced from Swat. First fleeing the fighting that destroyed her home, and now to escape the flood that has swept away her entire village. From the northwest, the torrent of floodwater has flowed south and east, submerging vast swathes of Punjab and Sind.

The army is stepping up to the challenge and has engaged 60,000 soldiers to respond to the crisis, some diverted from fighting the Taliban. But the bankrupt government, dependent on International Monetary Fund loans, cannot sustain the relief effort. The US is providing $ 150million and a UN appeal for humanitarian aid has raised $ 800million in pledges, yet to be delivered. But this is not enough and may be too little too late.

Islamist relief agencies were first on the scene providing humanitarian relief to disaster-stricken victims. They are able to get to the most desolate areas beyond the reach of the state. When the floods recede, the skeleton of a failing state is likely to be revealed with a broken infrastructure of damns, roads, bridges, buildings and an abandoned and angry population suffering from disease and food insecurity.

Popular sentiment has already turned against politicians and the civilian government, but there is gratitude to the army for its service at this time of emergency. This may be short-lived. The army's remit, beyond rescue and crisis response, does not extend to rebuilding the state.

The social and economic repercussions of the large-scale destruction of agricultural land and crops are the biggest challenge for the government as it makes plans to feed a nation beyond the one-month emergency rations.

If sufficient international aid fails to materialise and the civilian government falls short of its responsibilities, predatory, non-state grassroots actors are likely to fill the void and galvanise the sentiments of people who, in these desperate times, could be 'three meals away from revolution.' The failure to provide timely and effective humanitarian relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction, will push Pakistan to the brink, it will boost Islamist groups, fuel the insurgency and create the conditions for further regional instability.

This is an extract from the October 2010 edition of The World Today.