Dawn Editorial 29th February 2024

Gwadar deluge

GWADAR has been battered with severe rains — the worst since 2010 — with both the town and Ormara to its east cut off from other parts of Balochistan and Karachi. The local administration has declared a state of emergency and mobilised paramilitary forces for rescue and relief operations, highlighting the severity of the situation. The impact on daily life and livelihoods, especially for fishermen, is heartbreaking. Many have seen their boats — the very essence of their livelihood — destroyed or sunk, a blow that compounds the tragedy of homes submerged under four feet of floodwater. This disaster not only robs them of their immediate means to earn a living but also casts a long shadow on their future, with the road to recovery uncertain and daunting. As we stand in solidarity with the affected, it is crucial to spotlight the urgent need for better disaster management, particularly in regions like Gwadar, which often remain overlooked in the broader scheme of national priorities. The approach of another spell of heavy rains from Feb 29 to March 1, as forecast by the Met Office, adds to the urgency.

Pakistan is no stranger to catastrophic floods. It needs to better prepare for such events, both at the local and national levels. In Gwadar, a comprehensive disaster management strategy must encompass detailed risk assessments, community-based risk management, and infrastructure resilience. Strengthening sea walls, upgrading drainage systems, and implementing advanced early warning systems are pivotal. Also, developing evacuation plans, safeguarding livelihoods through financial safety nets, ensuring emergency healthcare, and promoting sustainable urban planning are crucial. Incorporating afforestation and coastal management further mitigates flood impacts. It is time to reinforce our commitment to safeguarding all lives and livelihoods, especially those in the most vulnerable regions. Let’s foster a resilient, inclusive country that is able to face the challenges posed by natural disasters. No community should be left to weather the storm alone.

Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2024

Silenced voices

THE state suddenly seems to be acting more loyal than the king as far as respect for the judiciary is concerned. The Monday arrest of Islamabad-based journalist, Asad Ali Toor, by the FIA on the charge of running a “malicious campaign” against the superior judiciary has disturbed media practitioners across the country. Many in Pakistan’s media community had feared that Mr Toor was inviting the ire of powerful forces over his unabashed and often confrontational commentary on alleged state excesses in recent days. His persistent criticism of a Supreme Court decision that denied the PTI the use of its ‘bat’ symbol during the elections has now been used as the premise to detain him. Mr Toor is not the only vocal public figure to have been ‘silenced through the law’ in recent days. A few days before his arrest, anchorperson Imran Riaz was also picked up and later remanded to judicial custody on charges of ‘corruption’. A sympathiser of the PTI, Mr Riaz appears to have upset certain quarters by continuing his unyielding criticism of the political status quo and the role of unelected elements in shaping it.

It is telling of how little faith the country, in general, places in the legal system that the charges brought against both gentlemen seem immaterial to many. The prevailing perception is that both Mr Toor and Mr Riaz have been ‘removed’ from the picture because they were offending powerful people. This perception has been strengthened by the fact that the respective charges brought against both individuals are vague and seem insufficient to require that they be detained before they have been given a hearing in a court of law. Unfortunately, over the past few years, the Pakistani state has made such a mockery of fundamental rights that the arbitrary deprivation of basic liberties is now considered par for the course. The silencing of critical voices began in earnest during the PTI government and has not let up since then. Though a large part of the mainstream media might have ceded to pressure, the crop of independent commentators on social media sharing their ‘subversive’ thoughts with millions is a fresh headache for oppressive elements. Their goal is obvious: silence all dissent. The judiciary itself did not demand an explanation from Mr Toor. So, why should the FIA burden itself with the task?

Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2024

Unchanged rating

INTERNATIONAL ratings agency Moody’s decision to keep Pakistan’s long-term credit rating unchanged at Caa3, with stable outlook, is reflective of the poor standing of a cash-strapped nation in global financial markets.

The rating indicates a higher probability of default and a greater degree of investment risks amid weak debt affordability. It also takes into account Pakistan’s low growth rate and high exposure to extreme weather events, which can increase economic and social costs, with high debt-servicing requirements reducing the fiscal flexibility to undertake key expenditures on infrastructure and social initiatives.

Global rating agencies have long ranked the country among ‘speculative grade’ economies, with very high credit risk owing to the liquidity crisis and external vulnerability challenges. A year ago, Moody’s had downgraded Pakistan from Caa2 to Caa3, relegating it to almost the bottom of the riskiest markets, shortly after the IMF suspended its funding support due to the authorities’ failure to meet the goals of the previous Fund programme.

That had seen Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves plunge and had raised concerns over the country’s weakening ability to pay its foreign debt. The agency kept the sovereign rating unchanged last summer, even after the IMF agreed to provide a short-term $3bn loan to help Islamabad stabilise the economy and avert default.

Moody’s latest decision once again underscores that the fears of default, exacerbated by political uncertainty in the aftermath of the Feb 8 poll, will continue, unless a new, larger loan agreement is reached with the IMF. “Political risks are high,” it says, “following … controversial elections.”

It says that there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the new government’s inclination and ability to quickly enter a new IMF programme, which is needed to attract additional financing from other multilateral and bilateral partners in order to reduce default risks.

It also maintains that the forthcoming coalition government’s decision-making capacity will be severely constrained as its electoral mandate may not be sufficiently strong to pursue difficult reforms that will likely be required by a new IMF programme.

Thanks to the current IMF facility and some other multilateral inflows, as well as strict controls on imports and profit repatriation in the last several months, Pakistan has successfully accumulated a small stock of foreign exchange. That means the new set-up will likely meet its remaining external debt obligations for the present fiscal.

However, as Moody’s has said, there is “limited visibility” regarding the sovereign’s sources of financing to meet its “very high external needs” after the current IMF Stand-By Arrangement ends in a few weeks. That concern will remain until Pakistan enters a new programme with the Fund.

However, the likelihood of Pakistan graduating from high-risk to investment-grade category will depend on the government’s undertaking durable structural reforms, and political and policy stability.

Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2024


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