The worsening floods in Pakistan may only be the first event in a series of crises that are likely to become a global trend, a consequence of what scientists are beginning to refer to as the “third pole,” writes William Dowell.

Geneva —  “Hundreds of millions of people will be vulnerable to a whole host of events,” warns Randolph Kent, executive director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College in London.  “What we are creating,” Kent says,”is a series of crisis drivers that impact on each other.”

A few weeks ago, the Humanitarian Futures Programme issued a  report detailing the implications of the “Waters of the Third Pole”. The study points out that the Himalayan and Hind Kush mountain ranges contain the earth’s third largest single mass of frozen water, surpassed only by the North and South Poles.  Just as the glaciers in the Arctic are rapidly melting, the ice contained in the world’s two largest mountain ranges is also beginning to melt.  The difference with the Arctic is that this time the water is flowing towards some of the most densely populated regions in the world.  Together the Himalayas and Hindu Kush feed ten major river systems, including the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow rivers, and, of course, those involved in the current flooding in Pakistan. The people affected constitute roughly a fifth of the world’s population.

Kent warns that future crises will be far more interactive than they have been in the past.   Pakistan is a prime example. The international community is just waking up to he fact that the floods are part of what is likely to be a cascading series of economic and political crises. In the case of Pakistan, an enormous portion of the country’s farmland has been destroyed, along with much of its infrastructure, and this has taken place in an area that is so poor that people do not have much margin to fall back on. Estimates are that well over 200,000 cattle, donkeys and oxen have been killed. “You can put chickens, goats and sheep in the boat and take them with you, but you can’t take a buffalo or a cow,” Simon Mack, a livestock expert at the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) told Pakistan’s leading newspaper,Dawn. The result, once the floods have gone, will be an economic catastrophe in which ordinary people lack the resources to feed their own families.

The political chaos that is likely to follow has already raised concerns about Pakistan’s shaky civilian government. A minority political party is calling on the army to assume power, since it is better organized than the civilian leadership to act in an emergency. Most of the assistance is being delivered by Pakistan army helicopters, which strengthens the army’s credibility as the main organization in the country that actually delivers. Washington, on the other hand, knows that it has more leverage with a civilian government than it would with Pakistan’s generals. Anti-American feeling is running high, particularly among the military, because of the intense pressure from Washington to identify where Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are located. There is a strong suspicion on the part of Pakistan’s military that the US would be likely to send in strike teams to take out the nuclear weapons if it looked as though Islamic extremists were about to seize power. “The only thing that is saving us,” one Pakistani military man reportedly said, ”is that the Americans can’t be sure that they know where all the weapons are located.” The US Army has now promised to provide additional helicopters to provide relief aid, but Pakistani feelings about a sudden influx of US military hardware—even if it is to save lives– is likely to be ambivalent at best.

Even without the US pressure concerning Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, factions within Pakistan’s army have been skeptical about the US Global War On Terror, better known in military circles as GWOT. It was Pakistan’s army, and more specifically its intelligence service, the ISI, which was largely responsible for helping to put the Taliban into power in Afghanistan in the first place. The intention at the time was to build Islamic connections on the Afghan side of the border so that the Pakistan army could focus its main effort on India, which the army has always regarded as the greatest potential threat. Feelings for the Afghan Taliban have cooled quite a bit since then, but some factions in the Pakistan army still remain hesitant about moving against their former allies. Pakistan is fervently Islamic but the deciding factor is a general expectation that the US will eventually get tired of the war in Afghanistan and go home. When that happens, Pakistan has more to gain from having connections to the groups that are likely to take over than it does in working against them. “If you look at it from Pakistan’s point of view, it would be crazy to align yourself with the United States right now,” says Emily Pantalone, A Tufts University student who has been researching the Afghan conflict for a book. No one expects a coup to take place anytime soon, but what is likely to happen is an increase in military influence over the civilian government, which has been seriously weakened by the crisis.

If the US and its NATO allies are concerned about the political implications of the flood, Pakistan’s homegrown Taliban movement sees it as a golden opportunity. Much of the area that is now under water was already sympathetic to Islamic activists before the flood, and to a certain extent, the flood has served to undo the effects of a government military campaign intended to win the territory back. The inability of either Pakistan’s government or the international community to provide sufficient aid quickly enough only reinforces the Pakistani Taliban’s argument that change is needed and that it is time for the foreigners and their predator drones to go home. To back that up, Islamic extremist groups are now threatening to kill international aid workers supplying relief to flood victims. Even if nothing happens, the threat itself is likely to slow down relief efforts and make the government look less in control. “We feel that there is a danger,” says Melanie Brooks, who handles communications for CARE International’s emergency group,”that’s why we operate through local Pakistani NGOs.

As Randolph Kent sees it, humanitarian crises like the current flood will take on increasing political importance as the dual pressures of climate change and over population come together in an increasingly volatile environment. The mistake of traditional institutions like the United Nations, Kent argues, has been to look at these problems on a stove-pipe, country-by-country basis rather than taking a more globally strategic look at what is happening across continents. The Pakistan flood, for instance, coincided with landslides in northwest China, which killed more than 700 people and left another thousand missing. At the same time, heat waves in Russia triggered forest fires outside Moscow and destroyed Russia’s wheat harvest to the extent that the country is considering banning exports. All of these disasters happened more or less simultaneously as the result of a global climate pattern, yet each was reported as a separate event and interpreted as though there were no connection. The political and economic repercussions, however, are likely to extend beyond the countries directly involved. Kent’s advice is to begin looking at the world more strategically and at a more global level, and to begin preparing ourselves for future disasters before it is too late.