Pakistan's Floods: A Crisis of Empathy

August 16, 2010

Pakistani flood survivors gather at a makeshift tent camp in Sultan Kot on August 16, 2010.

It is being described by the United Nations as the worst catastrophe in its history, with nearly fourteen million people affected and a third of Pakistan’s territory under water.   Nearly 1600 people died in the immediate aftermath of the floods but hundreds and possibly even thousands more are expected to perish as deadly diseases begin to spread through the displaced populations spread through the affected populations.  According to U.N estimates nearly 3.5 million children are at risk of water borne diseases and thousands of cholera cases are expected in the next few days.  The weather forecast continues to be unrelenting with further flooding expected as rains continue through the week.

Catastrophe of this magnitude visited upon a country already flailing under the weight of terrorist attacks and poor governance is an indescribable tragedy.  But the dimensions of Pakistan’s calamity have been exacerbated not simply by the vagaries of nature but by the inability of the world to join the effort to save Pakistan’s submerged millions.

After a tour of the affected areas U.N Secretary General Ban ki Moon once again urged the international community to come to Pakistan’s aid pointing out that only a quarter of the 459 million dollars in aid have actually arrived.  In the meantime, six million people are still living under the open sky without potable water or any food supply often scrambling under any available shelter and scrounging for food.   With the Pakistani Government mired in its own ineptitude and problems of logistics and corruption Pakistani NGOs and other citizens are essentially coordinating the flood relief effort on their own using virtual mapping to allow anyone who is helping to report incidents to see where help is needed.

Shockingly the cavalcade of bereft images, emaciated men clutching driftwood, women grasping half naked babies and villages and towns inundated in the ubiquitous murky brown have all failed to arouse the world’s sympathy.  While millions around the globe opened their coffers for the victims of the Asian Tsunami and the Haitian earthquake, few have done so for Pakistan.  Hollywood stars, usually quick to rally around victims of humanitarian catastrophe have been eerily silent in coming to the aid of millions of Pakistan’s hapless flood victims.

The U.S response, while widely publicized, has also been paltry relative to the magnitude of the catastrophe with only a few hundred million pledged; a far cry from the over one billion the United States spends on fighting the war on terror in Pakistan.  To date, only nineteen helicopters and two C-130s of the many hundreds stationed mere miles away from affected areas were actually being utilized for humanitarian efforts in Pakistan.  While news agencies decried how the floods may provide opportunities for militants to regroup these fears have not led to any decisions that would divert significant military assets to humanitarian use in the region.

As Amnesty International pointed out in its recent report on Pakistan, many in the flood affected areas were already undergoing persecution at the hands of the Taliban, Pakistani security forces and U.S drone attacks.  The arrival of a natural disaster that is unprecedented in the country’s history has left millions vulnerable to both disease and even more exploitation by these forces.  Unless ordinary people around the world donate to come to the aid of the millions waiting for help, Pakistanis will bear the burden of believing that in their gravest hour of need they have been forgotten and ignored.