Harvard Initiatives in Pakistan Respond to Floods

Harvard’s research and aid initiatives in Pakistan have grown in relevance after unprecedented flooding in Aug. devastated the country’s infrastructure and affected more than 20 million people.

The flooding of the Indus River system, which resulted from heavy monsoon rains, presented immediate challenges. Millions of people needed water, shelter, and food, and battled the onslaught of hypothermia, cholera, and viral diarrhea, according to Jennifer Leaning ’68, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. Most significantly, they faced long-term difficulties with resettlement.

“The very enormous longer-term work is when people go ‘home.’ We have not seen this number of people uprooted since the partition of India,” Leaning said. “It’s close to an impossible task.”

In response to these challenges, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative—co-founded by Leaning—is assessing the diverse needs of the Pakistani population through research projects to direct future efforts by the international humanitarian community.

Through the Harvard Water Security Initiative, led by Environmental Engineering Professor John Briscoe, Harvard researchers are collaborating with Lahore University of Management Sciences, the Pakistani government, and the country’s private sector to improve the water infrastructure.

“Management of water of the basin is what enables almost 200 million people to now live in the basin,” Briscoe wrote in an e-mail. “That said, you can never interfere with such a massive system without giving rise to another set of challenges.”

Oceanic History Professor Sugata Bose emphasized the complexity of water issues in Pakistan. Water scarcity had been an issue when he visited LUMS in May, but now the country is faced with “too much water” and may face a drought next year, Bose said.

He added that water distribution is also a source of political tension between Pakistan and India, where the source of the Indus River system is located.

“Not oil but water will determine our future in terms of development as well as the choice of peace or conflict on the subcontinent,” he said.

The Asia Center will be sponsoring on Oct. 14 a cross-disciplinary panel on the floods, in which scholars will speak about their perspectives on potential solutions to the catastrophe.

The Harvard Pakistan Student Group has planned multiple events over the coming months to keep the floods on the minds of students. HPSG is trying to build a database of students interested in Pakistan and hopes to get 5,000 students to donate $1 toward flood relief by the end of the academic year.

“Instead of making our campaign about raising money, we are making our campaign about raising engagement with students at Harvard,” said HPSG President Mariam Chughtai, a student at the Graduate School of Education.