The emotional toll of disaster can test even the most cohesive communities, so it’s no surprise that extreme flooding in Kashmir has caused major political challenges. What remains to be seen is whether those challenges can be turned into opportunities for change.
The region, which includes autonomous states administered by both India and Pakistan, was struck early this month by the worst flooding in decades, leaving nearly 300 dead and thousands stranded without food and water. Subsequent landslides left many others without transportation or electricity.
In the first days of the disaster, relief efforts created an atmosphere of tentative hope and goodwill in the heavily militarized area. For instance, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put their border tensions on hold to offer assistance to each other.
Similarly, a strong government rescue response in Jammu and Kashmir—and promise of $164 million to rebuild the largely Muslim state—was seen as an opportunity to ease the distrust many there have had for Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Less than a week into the disaster, though, that goodwill had vanished. In Pakistan, militant-fueled public opinion blamed Indian water management practices for the flood, while angry Kashmir residents accused India of only rescuing Indian tourists and others it deemed important, while the majority of the residents had to wait for humanitarian help to come. The government denied prioritizing relief.
“Our air force does not permit selective rescue,” a senior army official told Reuters. “The population has been affected by a tragedy. This reaction is a reflection of their lack of faith in the civic administration.”
That lack of faith is regrettable under normal circumstances, but in a widespread disaster such as the one in Jammu and Kashmir, it can exacerbate an already deadly situation. Longstanding resentment against military forces in Kashmir are slowing delivery of food and aid, as residents threw stones at rescuers and attack supply vehicles, according to the New York Times. When deliveries are made, the supplies are often left untouched by citizens who refuse to take assistance from the government they loathe.
“At this point, anything coming from the government, a government vehicle passing through the street, would be pelted with stones,” Gull Wani, director of the Institute of Kashmir Studies at Kashmir University, told the Times. “It’s not necessarily for the old reasons, but because the government has not been able to deal with the current situation.”
It’s unfortunate that the situation is so volatile that the first few days of amity can’t be recaptured. As the Center for Climate and Security points out, these types of disasters can be invaluable in mending breaches in trust.
“If political will and resources are concentrated during these pivotal moments, it may be possible to unstick certain conflict dynamics that are intractable under normal circumstances,” the Center wrote in a recent blog post. “Given this reality, leaders in the region (and internationally) should focus not only on building resilience to these disasters, which is imperative, but also on ensuring that disaster-response efforts include within the seeds for the longer-term resolution of conflict.”
Although there doesn’t seem to be many options for salvaging the current situation, it’s possible that in a region marked by extreme disaster risk and political unrest there will be other opportunities—but it will take forethought and cooperation.
“There are lessons here. New infrastructure should be planned with flood preparedness in mind,” a New York Times editorial states. “Meanwhile, India and Pakistan should also seize this common crisis to work together against future flooding in the region.”
That might be too much to ask of governments woefully unprepared to deal with catastrophes and embroiled in border disputes, but sooner or later the past will have to be set aside to deal with the future, said one resident.
“It is not the time to put blame on each other. However, we should be ready to introspect that what could have been done and what can be done to avoid such calamities in the near future,” Hamid Iqbal Tak writes in an opinion piece for the Kashmir Times. “The lesson here is that we had either forgotten our past or became too inattentive but nature never forgets and never sleeps.”