When calamities strike it usually unites nations. Not so this time in Pakistan.

The worst floods in the country’s history should have urged political rivals to set aside their partisan interests and offer a collective response to the catastrophe. But this was expecting too much. Politics was back to business-as-usual save for a few days after the deadly monsoon began to wreak unprecedented devastation across the country.

The most egregious example of this was the letter written by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Finance Minister Taimur Jhagra to the federal government that the provincial government run by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf was unable to deliver a budget surplus. Sent – and made public – just days before the International Monetary Fund board was to meet to consider a loan package, the only intent of the letter was to upend the bailout.

Under the terms of the International Monetary Fund deal all provincial governments were required to generate a fiscal surplus, which they had committed to do, in writing. As shocking was the leaked phone conversation between Jhagra and the former federal finance minister in which both acknowledged this would damage the country but went ahead with the letter. The Fund programme was of course not derailed. Board approval on August 29 paved the way for disbursement of the first tranche needed for Pakistan to avert the risk of default.

The humanitarian crisis confronting the country, in the face of an imposing economic challenge and soaring inflation, warrants a unified response. It needs political leaders to come together to deal with a disaster of epic proportions. But this hasn’t happened.

Meanwhile, the enormous displacement and destruction caused by floods from the exceptional monsoon rain has spread more widely. This calamity is principally the result of climate change, responsible for 90% of natural disasters in the country over the past two decades. But it has been exacerbated by ill-conceived or illegal river and canal bank constructions.

The situation is far more dire than it was in 2010 when super floods last overwhelmed the country. Already more people have been impacted – over 33 million – and vast swathes of land, almost a third of the country, inundated by floodwaters. Eighty districts were declared calamity hit with 110 districts affected by the disaster. Destruction of homes and infrastructure and damage to crops has been substantial.

The death toll has already exceeded 1,200 including hundreds of children. Livelihoods have been destroyed. Eighteen thousand schools have been washed away. Continuing flooding, inclement weather, transport disruption and damage to infrastructure hampered relief and rescue efforts. Images of desperate survivors in a sea of suffering have been heart-wrenching. Half a million people are in camps. The economic costs of the catastrophe are initially estimated at around $10 billion.

This calamitous state of affairs did little to dissuade some political leaders to pause their confrontational politics and cease their divisive rhetoric at least for the time being. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, for example, went ahead with its public rally in Jhelum in the midst of chaos in the country.

In his address, Imran Khan again struck a confrontational note while saying his party will do everything to assist and rehabilitate flood victims. Responding to criticism he said he will continue to hold rallies in floods, heatwaves and “even war”.

And he carried on with rallies in other cities with his tone becoming even more combative. At one rally, a PTI lawmaker called on overseas Pakistanis not to send funds for flood relief in response to the federal government’s appeal.

The coalition government mounted its relief operations with Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif offering to work with the opposition at a time of national emergency and holding out an olive branch to Imran Khan. But the PTI-run provincial administrations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab made little attempt to reach out to the centre.

Instead, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s chief minister made the disingenuous claim that the federal government had failed to help and said no contact had taken place between his provincial government and the centre since the floods. Punjab’s chief minister asked Imran Khan and not Islamabad for assistance. Instead, Pervaiz Elahi seemed preoccupied with a dispute with the IG police over the appointment of district police officers.

A high-level meeting last week presided over by Prime Minister Sharif and attended by service chiefs took stock of the situation and evolved comprehensive relief and rehabilitation plans. It was boycotted by PTI’s chief minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab’s Pervaiz Elahi, although both were invited along with other chief ministers. The chief secretaries of these two provinces attended but Khan directed their political bosses to stay away.

Several PML-N leaders assailed this conduct and renewed their partisan attacks on PTI on other counts. Several coalition government leaders continued to lash out at PTI, which further escalated tensions.

Meanwhile, Khan made it plain that funds he was raising would only be given to Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with his telethon securing record pledges from overseas Pakistanis. This divided response from political leaders presented an unedifying spectacle at a time of a national emergency.

The bright spot in this bleak landscape was the commendable response from the public and local communities.

Generous support is characteristic of the people who have a long-standing record of philanthropy. NGOs and private charities all rose to the challenge and got volunteers on the ground in areas they could access. Media coverage highlighted where assistance was urgently needed. Civil society, the business community, media houses and citizens across the country organised efforts to help the flood victims. Members of local communities who risked their lives to save others provided exceptional examples of courage and heroic action. As did the round-the-clock relief and evacuation efforts by local officials – men and women – in several areas. The capacity for endurance of the afflicted also stood out as testimony to the dignity and resilience of the people.

The exemplary role of the public should be matched by a display of solidarity among political leaders and parties. But this continues to be in short supply.

An important question raised by the calamity is whether the country’s political leaders can still demonstrate the unity and collective resolve needed in the months ahead to steer the ship of state through these stormy waters to safer shores.

This article first appeared in Dawn.