Just because itâ€™s not being broadcast doesnâ€™t mean all is well in Pakistanâ€™s flood-hit areas.
By Sherry Rehman| Newsweek,Â Nov. 25, 2011, issue.
Disaster fatigue is not a common sentiment in Pakistan. Since the 2005 earthquake Pakistan has seen many natural calamities and large-scale mobilization campaigns across the country to manage the fallout from those disasters. At every point, the stateâ€™s humanitarian response has been substantially augmented by nongovernmental organizations motivated by the severity of the crisis and the magnitude of need.
But after this yearâ€™s floodsâ€”despite some level of response from local NGOs, young Pakistani activists, relief workers, and the U.N.â€”aid inflows remain dangerously inadequate and relief workers warn of an impending catastrophe due to unmet pledges and a potential looming breach in the relief-and-food supply line to victims in the difficult months ahead.
Why has the world not responded? First, the international media has almost totally ignored this catastrophe. The local media has also taken its time getting there: despite the initial reporting on the floods, sustained media interest, with a few exceptions, has been a major challenge. Yet the need for media coverage is equally great, if not greater, than it was during last yearâ€™s floods, the countryâ€™s worst ever. International aid agencies, in fact, rate the trauma this time as greater than last yearâ€™s because almost two million people in Sindh have been forced to flee their homes for a second time in as many years.
One of the reasons the media is looking away is that this yearâ€™s floods are different both in nature and impact. Unlike the great floods last year that engulfed the whole country from north to south in a direct river outburst, the 2011 floods are the creature of unprecedented monsoon rains gaining critical mass over a short period of time. The floods have deluged over 6.1 million acres of land, killing 466 in its ferocity, but their fallout has been localized primarily to Sindh and pockets of Balochistan, catching only a short window of the local mediaâ€™s attention. With the political temperatures rising in the country, the mediaâ€™s concentration span has almost completely narrowed to episodic reporting, ignoring the misery that has arisen from the destruction of 1.48 million homes and the onset of a watery winter.
Second, the gravity of the crisis has met with disproportionately low public interest because of the physical barriers imposed by the flood path. This has automatically pushed the disaster into a broadcasting ghetto. Given the acute and localized nature of flooding, the rescue phase has also consumed double the time and resources. Land access to victims has been the first obstacle; entire roads and villages still lie swamped and remote to assistance.
The facts are sobering, and with the onset of a harsh, wet winter, even chilling. With some nine million people affected, the overstretched National Disaster Management Authority has been unable to cope, and the governmentâ€™s resources and capacity are way below the numbers needed to provide relief, food, and basic medical care to 850,000 in makeshift shelters. Over a quarter million people still remain in the 758 camps dotting this dystopian landscape. The government, as well as humanitarian organizations have been unable to shift more than 65 percent of the displaced back to dry homes from camps simply because the water has no regular river channel to carry it swiftly out to sea. Without a charted, flow path to the sea, the monsoon waters lie trapped and fetid, destroying livestock, land, and sewerage, spreading disease and misery. Unlike last yearâ€™s floods which left behind alluvial riverine deposits, this time the toxic standing water may not only salinate crop soil, it may well destroy grazing land for livestock survival impacting existing food insecurity for vulnerable communities in Sindh and Balochistan.
If human suffering in such disasters can be calibrated on a scale, the most vulnerable are the women and children in the camps as well as those scraping for a living on sandbanks and roadsides. Of the five million at risk today, 143,750 are pregnant women. Many of them require special care, which the mobile health units are unable to provide. District hospitals are only able to cope with some percentage of trauma patients, while clogged emergency rooms are often unable to meet womenâ€™s needs. Others remain hostage to privacy obstacles, unable to navigate the survival chain when confronted with predatory competition for scarce resources, open to abuse and neglect. Non-Muslims have suffered even worse discrimination in certain areas, where relief has been denied on the basis of religious identity and illegal rites of exclusion.
The extent of the damage remains unmapped for most of Pakistan, and the world, except in aid offices and the governmentâ€™s control rooms. Last year, for instance, Badin district was a hub for relief activities and displaced persons. This year, it has collapsed completely, with 500 villages consumed by the overflowing and controversial Left Bank Outfall Drain to the Indus River. Districts which had never seen more than 200 millimeters of rain have been swamped by five times as much rainfall this time.
Sindhâ€™s Provincial Disaster Management Agency, U.N. aid agencies, local NGOs and the Pakistan Red Crescent Society and its international partners are out in the field, pumping water out, securing people to shelter, and disbursing relief and survival packs, but resource shortfalls hobble critical interventions needed immediately to avert further disasters. The U.N. secretary-generalâ€™s flash appeal is still barely 20 percent funded while the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies see other givers remaining â€œominously silentâ€ at a time when over five million lives in Sindh and Balochistan are at risk.
Other than mismanagement and governance deficits at the local level, which are legion in such disasters, compassion fatigue at the international level is compounded by new resource deficits and the diversion of finite aid pools to more consistently headlined crisis sites such as Somalia and Libya. The global financial downturn has also shifted the donor radar inwards, downscaling international assistance, while the recent uptick in branding Pakistan as a terrorist flashpoint has sapped some pockets of sympathy in key Western capitals. However, the situation on the ground is far different, as is the humanitarian response. International aid workers facing the elements in Sindh are unanimous in their anguish at the aid trickle because they neither caricature victims as potential jihadists nor see them as anything but helpless farmers and laborers who stand to lose everything this time in the tsunamic monsoon floods.
Yet despite the sympathy on the ground, repeated appeals including by the U.N. and its World Food Programme remain unheeded, imperiling millions who rely for subsistence on relief operations. At a stage when assistance should be focused on rehabilitating people, there is a consensus now that without real-time inflows we may barely be able to make it. The food supply line itself stands at a red mark, flashing close to empty when the food aid shortfall alone is $107 million in the U.N. system. There is little realization that without further urgent donations, it will be virtually impossible to provide full rations from December.
To compound the crisis, the recent rain predictions for Sindh have triggered fresh alarm on the ground, as thousands still remain marooned on roadsides with little more than plastic sheets for cover. The Pakistan Red Crescent Society has received better support from its international partners than other agencies, and we are bringing relief and supplies in a fresh winter emergency effort, but much more needs to be done just to keep survivors afloat, let alone carry on with parallel activities such as provision of shelter and rehabilitation. Field estimates tell us that the challenge of restoring livelihoods and homes is going to require serious heavy lifting on the ground, as 2.3 million acres of cropland is compromised and the livestock toll has tipped over 100,000.
As we go into the fourth month of disaster response, the good news is that coordination gaps in the governance of this disaster-management cycle have subsided. The worrying news is that a joint detailed assessment among the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and local government suggests that unless emergency appeals are not revised and heeded, hundreds of thousands will remain destitute under a merciless winter sky. In fact if, as donors, volunteers, citizens and humanitarian agents, we do not respond, the 2011 floods will become just another emergency the world forgot.
Rehman is also a member of the National Assembly and a former federal minister.