ISLAMABAD — While press photographers scrambled inside a hospital in Delhi recently to catch a glimpse of baby Astha, India’s 1 billionth citizen, in other parts of India officials continued to battle this year’s drought, which has been drying up water supplies and causing crop losses. Just last month, relief workers estimated that an estimated 50 million Indians may fall victim to the drought.
And it’s not India alone that is suffering. Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan and part of the southern province of Sindh have also been hit hard by the drought, as has neighboring Afghanistan.
While India and Pakistan may still get some monsoon rainfall this year, it’s possible that Afghanistan won’t get relief until its annual snowfalls begin at the end of the year. Some of the more pessimistic observers warn that even this will not bring relief, as Afghanistan will have to wait another six months before the snow melts and some of its dry irrigation channels begin to fill. A humanitarian tragedy striking three countries with a combined population of 1.16 billion is hardly a matter to be taken lightly.
Usually when these three countries are mentioned together it is in the context of global terrorism. For the past few years, Indian officials have claimed periodically that Islamic separatists fighting against their security forces in the Himalayan state of Kashmir have used camps in Afghanistan to train newly recruited young mercenaries. The Indians claim that these recruits then use Pakistan as a transit point for reaching Kashmir.
This is a complex issue with no easy answers. While the Indian claim is accepted by some in the West, sympathy also exists for the Pakistani view that the Indians have failed to offer a political formula that could end the unrest in Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim. As a humanitarian tragedy, the drought brings India and Pakistan an opportunity to cooperate in several ways.
First, a joint effort to study weather patterns, perhaps even under the aegis of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC, based in Katmandu, Nepal, could be a modest but worthwhile endeavor. Even barring the exchange of information considered sensitive by either side, an opportunity exists to exchange information on rainfall patterns and emerging dry spells as a step toward preventing a repeat of this year’s calamity.
Second, the establishment of a South Asian environmental protection and awareness commission under the wings of SAARC is another modest but salient, nonthreatening initiative that could serve the interests of all parties.
The United Nations could even consider giving technological and financial backing for such an initiative through agencies such as the U.N. Environment Program based in Kenya.
Finally, while Afghanistan’s worsening environmental conditions are unlikely to figure in the work of institutions established under the SAARC since Afghanistan is not a member of that association, Pakistan could help draw international attention to its neighbor’s plight. For many Western planners, the only consolation from this year’s drought in Afghanistan is that the production of opium, which is used to manufacture heroin, may fall sharply. As a result, Afghanistan could slip from its position as the world’s largest supplier of opium.
Yet even declining opium production is unlikely to significantly slow the production of Afghan heroin. The drug business will continue to flourish due to soaring levels of unemployment in Afghanistan.
The drought is not the only drag on Afghanistan’s economy. U.N. economic sanctions, imposed on that country last December in retaliation for its refusal to hand over to Saudi militant Osama bin Laden to the United States, are also taking a heavy toll.
While the politics of the standoff between the Taliban and the U.S. over the bin Laden issue remain unresolved, the reality is that Afghanistan is likely to fall into greater poverty unless it receives badly needed economic assistance to begin rebuilding its infrastructure, which was destroyed during the past two decades of war.
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