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Management in Practice

Pakistan’s Long, Uncertain Recovery from Devastating Floods

Unprecedented rains flooded a third of Pakistan, displacing millions, and destroying critical crops. Wasif Khan ’86, a professor of entrepreneurship and management control at Forman Christian College in Lahore, describes impacts that will ripple through the country for years to come.

People wading through water with livestock

Jamshoro district in Pakistan’s Sindh province on September 9.

Str/Xinhua via Getty Images
  • Wasif Khan
    Professor of Entrepreneurship and Management, Forman Christian College, Lahore, Pakistan

Q: How has the flooding impacted Pakistan?

At least 1,700 died. Something on the order of 33 million people were affected and nearly 8 million were displaced for we don’t know how long—at least three to six months. Many are subsistence farmers whose crops have been destroyed. They do not have savings. They are refugees with uncertain support.

Twenty-three million hectares of agricultural land was flooded, which is an area three times the size of Portugal. An estimated 750,000 animals have been lost. Crop damages are around $15 billion to $20 billion. The entire cotton crop is lost. It’s Pakistan’s largest staple crop and contributes about 1% to 2% of GDP. Date palm, rice, sugar cane, and other crops have seen at least 50% loss.

“The numbers don’t by themselves mean everything. The scope of the flooding is devastating at a systemic level and for each family that has been, in its own way, affected.”

I will caution you that the numbers don’t by themselves mean everything. The scope of the flooding is devastating at a systemic level and for each family that has been, in its own way, affected. Those stories are gut wrenching.

Friends run nonprofit organizations. I try not to look at the pictures they send; they’re so painful that it’s almost impossible to sleep after viewing them. I still recall the image of an emaciated young boy holding a Pakistan flag; you could see his bones. He’s one individual; there are millions of stories like his.

As time passes, diseases—malaria, dengue, typhoid, cholera—are hitting areas where there is no social safety net. There is public health in name, but a clinic out in a village will not have what is needed, whether that’s medicines or doctors. So sick people and pregnant women are trudging 10 or 12 miles through snake- and mosquito-infested waters to get to help. Because the support can’t reach every village, the villages have to walk to the support. Our governance, political, and social structures are not able to respond at the scale that is needed.

Q: Which parts of the country are impacted?

Pakistan is a narrow country that slopes down from the Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges, which have peaks towering above 8,000 meters. The Indus River runs from the mountains through agricultural plains to the Arabian Sea. Glacier melt was higher than normal, so the Indus was already flowing at a high level when the rainfall started early and stayed longer.

The rainfall in certain areas was between 400% and 700% of what it’s ever been—four to seven times as much. The numbers are astounding. While we may not attribute 100% of the damage to climate change, clearly it was a major influence in what happened.

The most impacted areas are the low-lying agricultural heartland through the central and southern part of the country. In southern Punjab province, Balochistan, and Sindh, people had to go to the nearest high point. They camped on raised highways and railroad tracks because there was no other place—everything else was underwater. The rural economy has been truly devastated. The big cities escaped the damage because they’re not close to the flood areas in general.

Q: Does that mean there will be migration from rural areas to the cities?

I am not expecting that to happen. These families do not want to give up their homes, even if it’s a half-flooded, one-room house, for fear of somebody else taking it over. Pakistan continues to be primarily an agriculturally driven economy. Thirty-eight percent of the labor force is employed in the agricultural sector.

Most of the industry we do have is cotton based—yarn and fabric production. Since the cotton crop was destroyed, the economic opportunity that existed in cities before the flooding is now gone. The factories are going to close or reduce activity because they must buy more expensive cotton from elsewhere.

There’s not going to be enough absorptive capacity in the cities for someone who was primarily a subsistence farmer or an unskilled worker to get a job. Now that doesn’t mean that people will not try, but without opportunity there won’t be large-scale internal migration.

Q: Who is leading the crisis response?

It’s everybody. The scale is enormous, so it’s beyond any sector’s ability. The government is definitely involved, but Pakistan suffers from a distrust of government, so I’m not sure how eager people are to seek that support.

There are many nonprofits. I work with one called the Citizens Foundation, which has 1,800 schools in Pakistan. They’re working to get the schools back. They’re also providing a million meals a day to the families of their children. They’re providing medical support.

There are numerous organizations like this doing this work because that’s what they do, but with millions displaced, it’s very difficult to provide them even two meals a day at a time when the infrastructure has been shattered.

Q: Can you describe the circumstances the flood victims are living with?

“I met subsistence farmers paying 108 percent annual interest or more on their seeds and fertilizer. They are never going to break out of that vicious cycle. It’s a feudal system. That’s the ongoing tragedy. The flood happens on top of that.”

It’s hard to understand from a developed country. This is another world. Even for me it was a revelation going from the city of Lahore to consult in rural Punjab, years ago. A few powerful landowners control everything. I met subsistence farmers paying 108% annual interest or more on their seeds and fertilizer. They are never going to break out of that vicious cycle. It’s a feudal system. That’s the ongoing tragedy. The flood happens on top of that.

When the debates about which levee to break to drain an area occur, it isn’t managed with pure science and reason. The big landlord says, “Oh, don’t break it there, that’s going to flood my land.” Whereas the 5,000 small landholders’ fields don’t have political sway.

There was flooding in 2010. It wasn’t as bad, but we saw that people survived. Then, as now, the real question is, at what level will they live? Pakistan is a hugely underdeveloped country. Nobody has done serious research on what really happened to those who were affected in 2010. We do not even have documentation on the per-capita income in most of the flood-affected areas. We do know the economic context of the subsistence farmer is one of constant challenge and adversity. The flooding has not shifted that for the better.

The impacts will ripple out for many years. Roughly 20,000 schools were wiped out. By the time they’re reconstructed, families will probably have put their kids to work in the fields or in some little venture. Child labor is illegal, but it is very common. Those are lives completely destroyed, As before, nobody is tracking that in a systemic way.

Without data you can’t fully explain it or grapple with it. There won’t be any basis for informed debate. But, in addition, you must also add the anecdotal evidence; then you may be able to begin to understand the scope of what has happened.

Q: Are there impacts beyond the flooded areas?

The cost of food is going up even in the cities. It’s terrible for the massive population that earns $3 or $4 a day. They are not going to be able to buy cheap vegetables or cheap wheat. The price of wheat has doubled. Everybody eats rotis, a little pancake-like bread—it’s a staple. Importing wheat is going to cost much more, so this ripple is going to continue for, I don’t know, a year, two years, three years.

Beyond the flood, external factors are impacting us. I’ll give you a small example. I know a man who looks after the parked cars of employees of a software company. He lives about 15 miles away. He used to go home after work. Now, because the Pakistani rupee is so weak against the dollar, fuel costs have doubled in the last year. Getting to and from work consumes half a day’s pay, so he’s sleeping in the company’s office four or five days a week.

Liquified natural gas prices have tripled because Europe is outbidding Pakistan because of Russia. These things were making a huge impact on everyone, floods or otherwise.

Q: Why is it important for other countries to care about what goes on in Pakistan?

I think that’s a question you should ask the other countries. I don’t think that moral compunction or the belonging to the global village is a great driver of supporting others. I’m not a historian but looking at the rebuilding of Germany after World War II, it wasn’t because of a great moral concern but a need for Europe to be a bulwark against communism. So “Why help Pakistan?” is a question for those people to answer.

Q: Does a stable Pakistan help with regional stability?

There is this whole undercurrent of thought that pervades the Western world about Islamic terrorism. Personally, I do not feel that the floods would be a driver of people running to join the Taliban or some other radical organization. Don’t forget, most of these people are just trying to survive. They are not gung-ho, ready to grab a Kalashnikov.

Q: Pakistan has contributed about 1% of the greenhouse gases we have put into the atmosphere. Yet it is bearing a disproportionate brunt of climate change impacts. There have been calls at the UN for developed countries to pay reparations. Those were renewed after the floods. What’s your take?

As a student of management, as a human being, and as an inhabitant of the planet, I think of course there should be some kind of reparation from the highly developed world because it contributed so much to the problem on climate change.

However, the governments in countries like mine tend to not just be corrupt but largely incompetent. To expect things to change overnight just because some flood came—well, that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be back to business the way it was. Rather than any government-to-government reparation, it might be more useful to find non-governmental efforts to support.

A $10 million grant from USAID got the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) off the ground in the 1980s. It’s recognized as Pakistan’s leading university. It’s an outstanding example of how U.S. funds can be channeled in a very efficient and effective manner that doesn’t directly support Pakistan’s government. Pakistan needs 100 such universities.

Realistically, I don’t think we can expect somebody in the U.S. government to raise the issue of equity and the impact of climate change on countries like ours. However, the U.S. does have the luxury and the strength of great intellectual and academic tradition. Mushfiq Mobarak, the eminent economist from Bangladesh, has done great work. Professor Mobarak and people like him could shake up the powers that be and say, “It’s time to look at the world afresh.”

Q: What led you to study at Yale SOM?

I had a career as an aerospace engineer in Silicon Valley. I went to Yale SOM thinking I would move into a management role, but, though I didn’t know what it would look like, I also had a desire to help create institutions of social change in the developing world.

When I graduated, I had an opportunity to teach at LUMS [Lahore University of Management Sciences]. My wife and I decided to try it out for two years. We thought, “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll head right back to the U.S.” That was 1987. Those two years of teaching went well for me. It took my wife, who was the first U.S.-trained oncologist in Pakistan, nearly 10 years to launch her career, from which she just retired as a professor of oncology.

Yale SOM was a great influence because it was a school about service and ethics. Business in Pakistan tends to have shades of ethical compromise. Teaching first at LUMS and now at Forman Christian College, the idea was to prepare students to go in and actually improve the practice of corporate management in Pakistan.

I think our students have been largely successful. Almost 99% of the corporate sector is family-held firms where change is hard to implement, where systems are hard to implement, where familiarity takes precedence over competence, but our graduates have implemented systems. They have used progressive practices in an environment where that’s very hard. I’ve been fortunate to do work that has an impact and lets me be happy with who I am and what I do.