Breaking the silence on Pakistan
By Bekele Geleta, secretary general, IFRC Once again, Pakistan’s monsoon flooding is causing misery for millions. In the southern province of Sindh an estimated seven million people have been affected, homes have been destroyed, vast tracts of farm land have been inundated, and important community facilities such as health clinics severely damaged. More than 500,000 men, women and children have now fled to relief camps and thousands more are camped out along road sides facing the risk of deadly disease from the stagnant water filled with human waste and decomposing animals that surrounds them.
In the face of this massive catastrophe, there has been an ominous silence from donors. The immediate outpouring of generosity that followed disasters such as the Japan tsunami or even last year’s floods in Pakistan has been conspicuously absent. When the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched an emergency appeal for the 2010 Pakistan floods, within two weeks 6.9 million Swiss francs had been committed by donors around the world. Within the same timeframe, our Appeal this year attracted a paltry 192,000 Swiss francs or 1.8 per cent of the 10.6 million that we need to assist 15,000 of the worst affected families in Sindh.
The very nature of “slow onset” disasters such as floods is working against the people of Sindh for all the wrong reasons. Without a key flash-point or compelling images to grab the media’s attention, it is traditionally difficult to galvanise public attention. This is despite the fact that the humanitarian impact of such disasters is far more wide-reaching than rapid onset disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. From 2001 to 2010, around 76 million people were directly affected by earthquakes and tsunamis in Asia. This compares to more than one billion people directly affected by floods and other hydro-meteorological disasters over the same period.
The current reality in Pakistan is stark - 80 per cent of those affected by the floods in Sindh are dependent on agriculture. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) 73 percent of crops and 67 percent of food stocks in affected districts of Sindh have been damaged or destroyed while 78 000 head of livestock have been killed. These are staggering numbers. The cumulative effect of such losses is that thousands of people are destitute and face an uncertain and insecure future. Without immediate food aid and seeds for the next planting season they will be driven deeper into an intractable cycle of poverty and debt.
Last year, a fortuitous combination of factors came together to ensure that after the Indus River burst its banks, the unfolding disaster in Pakistan became headline news. With many Western parliaments in recess at the time, the dramatic images of flash flooding in the northern Province of Khyber Pashtunkhwa grabbed the attention of the major international television networks such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera, all of whom turned to the catastrophe to fill their screens. To their credit, the networks stayed with the story for over a month deploying seasoned correspondents who followed the dramatic path of the floods south as they engulfed almost two thirds of the country.
Witnessing the suffering on their television screens, people around the world dug deep and it was public donations that formed the most significant contribution to the Red Cross’ Red Crescent emergency relief and recovery operation. This year, the floods came later and they have been competing with a packed news agenda including the conflict in Libya, unrest in the Middle East, famine in the Horn of Africa and the unfolding global financial crisis.
Sadly geo-politics and donor fatigue are also working against the people of Sindh. Negative perceptions of Pakistan are in part fuelling the reluctance of many governments to step forward and help once again. As one diplomat put it last year, “Pakistan is simply a bad brand ...”. But this perception should not and must not be a reason to consign millions of innocent Pakistani’s to a cruel fate.
There is also concern in the international community that the Pakistan Government did not do enough to support those hit by last year’s floods. There is some truth to this. But as we know from other comparable situations, the sheer scale and immensity of needs arising from such massive natural disasters is way beyond the capacity of individual governments to respond and necessitates a coordinated approach involving a range of domestic and international actors.
The people of Sindh should not be punished for a situation that is way beyond their control. They should not be damned because their homes were destroyed by a slow moving disaster, during a busy news cycle, in a country with a “bad brand”. We should be asking what the international community can do right now to prevent further loss of life and alleviate the miserable conditions that ordinary people have found themselves in. The longer we wait, the worse the impact will be. Taking action now will greatly reduce the immediate threats that people face in relief camps. With poor sanitation facilities, and limited food and clean drinking water, the risk of sickness and disease increases daily. Quick action will also go a long way to putting people in a position where they can start to take control of their own recovery, and begin rebuilding their lives and livelihoods. Helping Pakistan’s flood victims is not only about our collective responsibility, it is about our shared humanity and reaching out to support people in their time of greatest need.
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Deputy Director Communications and HV