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Pakistan floodwaters subside as a tide of allegation rises

Across Pakistan questions are swirling about whether the political elite intentionally failed to divert dam waters in order to protect lands of financial interest to them.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent, Staff writer / September 10, 2010

Pakistan flood victims make their way back to their flooded villages in the Muzaffargarh district of Punjab province September 5.

Asim Tanveer/Reuters


Muzaffargarh, Pakistan

One of the most flood-ravaged districts of Pakistan would not be under water today if flood management recommendations had not been overruled at the last moment by powerful political interests, according to senior officials here.

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In Muzaffargarh, the deaths of 51 people, displacement of 1.5 million, and destruction of 337 schools could have been mostly avoided if water had been diverted onto land set aside as a flood basin. The basin is vacant except for fields of sugar cane and cotton grown there surreptitiously by feudal families of the elite.

Allegations of a nexus of interests between the feudal families, who evidently benefited from the decision, and senior bureaucrats charged with carrying out their orders have generated an outcry in the local media and are currently the subject of multiple investigations.

IN PICTURES: Pakistan floods

Similar stories emerging all over the country suggest that while nature sent the waters, powerful men directed some of the deluge. The allegations threaten already tenuous confidence in the Pakistani government, among both its own citizens and Western reconstruction donors.

"Most of the flood damage would simply not have occurred in Muzaffargarh district if the right side of the dam had been breached [in] time," says a senior town official, waving his arms around a map of the district. "You can say this was man-made." The official, fearing for his job, asked that his identity be withheld.

Possible corruption, say high-ranking Pakistani officials

Two high-ranking international officials involved in Pakistan's development said that possible corruption highlights the need for more serious anticorruption mechanisms as millions of aid dollars flow into the country. One confided that details of political tampering with flood protection systems are coming in from all over Pakistan.

The retired general in charge of Pakistan's disaster response, Nadeem Ahmed, says, "When people are traumatized, these stories get multiplied and too magnified. Maybe some of them are true, maybe some of them are not true. But this is what we hear across the board wherever these inundations have happened."

He added that a proper national inquiry should be done but that it wasn't an issue of management: "More than the governance issue, this was a total mismatch between the nature of the disaster and the response assets that we had. We were just overwhelmed."

In Muzaffargarh, however, multiple local officials still insist this was a "man-made" catastrophe.

What the dam engineers say

In a long interview with five dam engineers entrusted with the upkeep of the Taunsa Barrage, the engineers reiterated that belief. "This is nothing more than a political game, but we aren't hopeful the truth will come out," said one engineer.

One of only two officials willing to criticize the government on the record is Asrar ul-Haq, chief engineer of the Irrigation & Power Department whose office is located at the provincial capital of Lahore.

Mr. Haq said that breaching the right-hand side would have brought its own danger. But, he conceded: "In hindsight, the people of Muzaffargarh can rightly feel very, very miserable about this. The flooding in their area would have been far less severe [if the right bank had been breached]."

All along the Indus River lie floodgates known as barrages. The flood control plan for Punjab Province stipulates that if the water pressure behind any gate grows too large, the right bank should be breached with explosives. At Taunsa Barrage, the left wall protects Muzaffargarh district, home to 3.5 million people. The right wall protects a less populous district, with at least 17,000 acres of "pondage" land set aside to hold floodwaters.

The decision