Will Floods Add to Conflict in Balochistan?

Natural disasters sometimes bring out the best in people—compassion and a willingness to reach out to others in need. In extraordinary times, goodwill can overcome divides that people may have grown to accept. But disasters are also a time of enormous stress and misfortune. If assistance doesn’t arrive on time or is perceived as badly managed, the reaction among those in need may be the opposite of gratitude.

After southwestern Pakistan was badly hit by flooding and cyclone Yemyin in late June, there were some worrying signs that the aftermath of the disaster may end up reinforcing the resentments that had fueled violent conflict in sprawling Balochistan province. According to a July 5 story by IRIN News (a news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), “perceptions of unfair treatment by the central government which in 2005 triggered a bloody conflict in the Dera Bugti and Kohlu districts … have been strengthened by complaints regarding delays in the start of relief work in the province.”

IRIN News quotes an angry student in Quetta, the provincial capital: “The treatment Balochistan received during this disaster simply shows what the rulers think of us. Young Baloch people will no longer accept this treatment as third rate citizens.” There is anger that residents of affected areas did not receive warnings of overflowing rivers and dams.

Cyclone rains and flooding left 240 to 500 people dead or missing, 250,000 homeless, and more than 1.5 million affected in a number of Pakistan’s provinces, but especially Balochistan and Sindh in the south.

Conflict in Balochistan is driven in part by deprivation and inequality. Poverty levels are nearly twice as high as in Punjab, Pakistan’s wealthiest province. IRIN News notes that half the population of Balochistan does not have access to clean drinking water, and the province lags behind on education and immunization. Unemployment is high.

Pakistan’s government points to its development projects in Balochistan, including port facilities in Gwadar that are to bring jobs to an area badly in need of employment opportunities. But many locals feel left out of the decision-making. They do not see the development schemes as beneficial to them, even as activists charge that Baloch natural gas resources are unjustly appropriated by the central government. The deployment of security forces in response to the conflict has added to local anger.

Balochistan has a history of revolts from the 1940s to the 1970s against the central government, fed in part by a sense of wrongs imposed by neighbors like Iran, Afghanistan and British India, which divided the Baloch region amongst themselves (see map at Perry-Castañeda Library of the University of Texas at Austin). More recently, tensions with Islamabad have grown "because of Islamabad’s heavy-handed armed response to Baloch militancy and its refusal to negotiate demands for political and economic autonomy," in the words of a September 2006 report by the International Crisis Group.