It is hard not to sympathize just a bit with Pakistani officials who, amid widespread accusations of a feeble, uncoordinated response to last summer's floods, argue that no one could have anticipated the scale of the disaster.
Having reported on the aftermath of other major flooding events (Grand Forks in 1997, New Orleans in 2005, Haiti in 2008), the enduring impact of Pakistan's floods is indeed beyond compare. Even today, four months on, hundreds of thousands of people in the southern Sindh province are still in tent camps. Their farmland—much of it sharecropped—is still inundated, in some regions under ten feet of water.
"The ability of the land to absorb the water is not there anymore, said Kamal Majidulla, special adviser to Pakistan's prime minister on water and agriculture. "It's not a sponge anymore, the sponge is loaded."
It could take months before the land becomes receptive to a new crop, and there is no assurance that life will ever go back to the way it was before the floods. In fact, it is likely that epic floods will revisit this region, according to Seemi Kamal, a Karachi-based water policy expert and activist.
"Pakistan is a climate change hot spot," she said, noting predictions that this region is likely to see a cycle of severe flooding and drought.
Also, paradoxically—and in sharp contrast to the flooded landscape—Pakistan and its giant neighbor India will actually see water scarcity in the years ahead, as climate change factors are compounded by profligate use of water in the farm sector in both countries.
Ashok Jaitly, a water policy expert at the Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi, says agriculture uses some 80 percent of the region's fresh water, with an efficiency rate of less than 50 percent. Underground aquifers in the breadbasket state of Punjab (divided between India and Pakistan at independence) are declining in some places at an alarming rate of three feet per year. Yet there's been little political impetus to develop coherent water policies. This reflects the privileges enjoyed by feudal landowners in Pakistan, says Kamal, and the powerful farm lobby in India, according to Jaitly.
Regional politics add complication. If there is a water issue one does hear about these days, particularly in Pakistan, it is concern over India's plans to construct a number of dams in Kashmir, a land divided and fought over by the two nations for six decades. The Himalayan state is the source of the river systems that both depend on, and Pakistan, the lower riparian, fears that its rival could manipulate downriver flows.
Those fears are unfounded or greatly exaggerated, according to many analysts, but the issue has provided fodder to extremists in the region, and Pakistan government adviser Majidulla says the issue could seriously exacerbate the already volatile Kashmir dispute.
It also dampens the chances of a region-wide effort to tackle the long-term effects of climate change, says Kamal, the water policy expert.
In any event, Kamal says the immediate priority has to be the the welfare of the estimated half million people who remain displaced in tent camps, people that she argues could well be called the first wave of climate refugees.
"We have to help people back on the land, help them stay away from diseases as much as they can, help with their food needs, help gets the kids to school help them get over this winter," she said.
The challenge is compounded by a lack of resources. International aid has fallen well short of the need. Majidulla blames it on the country's image as a haven for terrorists, one that he says unfairly taints a whole country for a problem primarily in one small corner of the land.
"There are 180 million other people living here," he said.
Donations have come in well short of the $10 billion needed to meet immediate needs, to say nothing of the price tag for the longer-term rebuilding, which Majidulla puts at around $50 billion.