Pakistani Officials Accused of Destroying Dikes for Personal Gain


An increasing number of victims, aid workers, and journalists in Pakistan are accusing local government officials of working to destroy some flood dikes. The alleged incidents appear to be isolated, but all follow a similar narrative: local members of government pressure flood engineers to breach a dike so that flood waters are routed away from their own hometown or that of politically connected elite, instead destroying poorer and more densely populated areas. These charges paint the government, already deeply unpopular in much of Pakistan, as not only corrupt but complicit in the flood damage that has killed thousands and left millions homeless. Though the accusations are likely exaggerated, the mere fact that they are believed at all risks weakening the government's increasingly frail hold on parts of the country where insurgents operate openly.

As flooding continues to submerge one-third of Pakistan, with aid resources still far less than what is needed, engineers often face difficult choices about where to direct flood waters. Breaching dikes is a common practice for controlling flood-water levels, which engineers carefully direct to minimize the number of people effected. However, some reports indicate that engineers, typically in the presence of local officials, have directed flood waters into densely populated areas and away from smaller, wealthier communities. Though Pakistan is a democracy, many rural areas practice something closer to a feudal system, with local elites enjoying sweeping authority. "Accusers have a very, very strong case for sure," said Moeed Yusuf, the South Asia adviser for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). "My sense is there must have been some foul play, but it is difficult to prove."

The accusations began with distraught victims but have since spread to the national parliament. The Pakistan People's Party, the country's majority party, has demanded a formal inquiry into allegations that a dike near the town of Muzaffargarh was breached to divert water away from the hometown of a local political leader, a member of an opposition political party. The leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, another national political party, has even called for the military to declare martial law to block "corrupt" local officials from interfering with the flood response. A spokesman for USAID, which is spearheading much of the U.S. response to the floods, said he was unfamiliar with the allegations.

It's extremely difficult to confirm these stories, which the governor of the devastated Punjab province Salman Taseer called "all ignorance and nonsense." Accusations "simply can't be proven unless someone has got some inside information on the politician," USIP's Yusuf said. Conspiracy theories are nothing new in Pakistan; a recent poll found that 42 percent of Pakistanis believe India was behind the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which were in fact carried out by the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba. (That same group has been performing aid work in response to the floods.) So the reports of improperly breached dikes, even if they are only rumor, are finding fertile ground in Pakistan, where deep suspicion of the government is frequently reinforced by corrupt behavior. As Yusuf put it, "If five are guilty, news portrayal and political mudslinging will make it sound like a hundred."

Widely reported accusations that humanitarian aid is being "diverted" to those with greater political clout are plausible and probably contributing to the rumors of inappropriately breached dikes. But this may not necessarily be due to foul play. There is only enough aid for a fraction of Pakistan's victims. The middle and upper classes are more likely to receive aid simply because they live in areas with more road infrastructure, making them the safest and most efficient targets for cash-poor relief agencies. This is probably reinforcing the impression among many Pakistanis that the wealthy are influencing the recovery process to the detriment of the poor.

But even unverifiable rumor can be extremely damaging in a country where frail civil society and distrust of institutions strengthen the increasingly violent insurgency. The government is deeply unpopular in rural areas, where insurgent groups may fill in for local governance. As trust in the official government corrodes into outright antagonism, anti-government militants will become stronger. These groups often shelter terrorists or are involved in terrorism in India or against allied forces in Afghanistan.

Whether 100 local officials have improperly breached flood dikes or only five, many in Pakistan increasingly believe that the problem is rife. It is difficult to say what is most disturbing: that the accusations are credible, that such grievous official corruption is plausible, or that the increasingly believed charges will set back the international effort to ween Pakistan off of insurgent groups and restore trust in the government that is so often part of the problem.

Image: Now homeless Pakistani families wade through the submerged ruins of their town in Sindh province. By Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.