You Aren’t Hearing About Pakistan’s Biggest Problems

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We know Pakistan is important. Every day headlines raise questions about Pakistan’s stability: its military’s alleged ties to terrorism, the security of its nuclear weapons and its long-standing conflict with India.

But some of the real threats to the country are largely absent from Western media. More conventional domestic issues may define Pakistan’s stability, and in doing so define regional and global security.

From electricity shortages to a looming fiscal deficit, here are four of Pakistan’s biggest problems you might not be hearing about.

A Dire Power Shortage

If you were to stop a Pakistani at random on the street and ask what his or her biggest concern is, there’s a good chance you’d hear about the country’s dire electricity shortage.

Because it cannot produce enough electricity [PDF] to meet demand, the government shuts off power for extended periods of time. These chronic blackouts, called load-shedding, sometimes last up to 18 hours a day and hamper economic activity, particularly affecting the country’s textile industry, and leave people across a wide socio-economic spectrum in sweltering heat.

And the shortage is at an all-time high.

Today protesters upset over the shortages took to the streets in cities across the country for the second day in a row, even clashing with police and turning to violence in the industrial city of Gujranwala.

Though such riots have become routine, a solution is far from near. This summer the government announced it would take seven years to develop the power generating capacity to end the pervasive blackouts.

Relentless, Devastating Floods

More than a year after monsoons ravaged the country in 2010, months of torrential rains have forced 2 million Pakistanis to flee their homes, some of them for the second year in a row.

On Monday the United Nations warned  that the international community’s failure to respond to the latest flooding crisis has left 3 million people in urgent need of food.  The floods have primarily hit the southern Sindh province, wiping out valuable cash crops, destroying 600,000 acres of agricultural land and leaving 2 million people at risk of contracting hepatitis, malaria and other sanitation-related diseases.

The government has been criticized for failing to apply lessons from last year’s floods, but climate experts warn that seasonal flooding will not only continue, but intensify in years to come.  In fact, some analysts project the country’s structural vulnerability to flood hazard, its poor drainage capabilities and changing climate patters will contribute to Pakistan being designated a “water-scarce state” [PDF] as early as 2020.

Minorities Under Attack

While much of the world’s focus on Pakistan hones in on the Taliban, sectarian terrorist groups that have been systematically attacking minority communities are overlooked.

This morning gunmen in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan stopped and evacuated a bus filled with day laborers of the Shia ethnic Hazara minority, forced them to stand in a line and then opened fire. Thirteen people were killed.  Last month 26 Hazaras were killed in similar sectarian attacks, for which the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi took credit.  These aren’t isolated incidents, but are part of a systematic campaign against the country’s Shia, which make up a quarter of the population, that has escalated in recent years.  Citing the failure of Pakistani authorities to prevent them, Amnesty International has documented 15 such attacks in the last year alone.

There has also been an upsurge in attacks in recent years against the country’s Christian communities and members of the Ahmadi minority sect. Critics argue these attacks are in part implicitly sanctioned by the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which enforce the death sentence on anyone found guilty of insulting the Prophet or Islam. Human Rights Watch reported that in 2009, “at least 37 Ahmadis were charged under the general provisions of the Blasphemy Law and over 50 were charged under Ahmadi-specific provisions.”

There has been nationwide resistance to attempts to reform the laws.

A Looming Fiscal Crisis

Last financial year, Pakistan’s fiscal deficit was its highest in history.

But recent moves, including its decision to end a $11.3 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan program, have some wondering how it will dig itself out of the hole.

Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh said Pakistan was not seeking another IMF loan because it could not meet some of its conditions and was “strong enough” to live without it.  But critics say the move will hinder development loans from other financial institutions and that the country is choosing short-term gains in favor of long-term economic stability.

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