Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The View from Fez reports from Pakistan

In the first few days, the response to Pakistan's catastrophic floods was far smaller than one might have expected. Countries around the world pledged aid, but it was far below what was needed, even for the initial phase of the disaster. In terms of what will be needed in the coming months and even years, it was far from adequate. Now, as the scale of the tragedy sinks in, the donations have increased substantially. One of The View from Fez team travelled to Pakistan, from where they sent this report.

Morocco has a very strong record of responding to humanitarian disasters and so it was no surprise that within days King Mohamed VI had ordered the dispatch of an initial planeload of humanitarian aid to flood victims in Pakistan. The aid included 12 tonnes of medical and pharmaceutical products.

The situation on the ground is difficult to come to terms with. First is the massive scale of the problem. Secondly, is the almost impossible task of getting an accurate picture of what is being done and where. What is easy to understand is that this is not a single shock event such as a tsunami. This is a rolling disaster which will effect millions of lives for years into the future.

The initial phase of the tragedy began more than three weeks ago, when the worst floods in decades, triggered by unusually heavy monsoon rains, swept through the northwestern provinces, have receded in some areas in the northwest and Punjab, while aid agencies now say southern Sindh province is most vulnerable to rising waters of the Indus river. To complicate matters the Sutlej river, in the south, is at critical levels and will be impacted further if the Indian government releases water from their dams further upstream.

Estimates of the number of deaths is sketchy, but the Pakistan government report that more than five million people have been displaced. If this figure is correct then this is the largest mass movement of people in the country since Partition in 1947. Other reports claim that one fifth of Pakistan's land mass is under water and the total number of people affected has topped a staggering 20 million.

In Sindh province a further 200,000 people have been evacuated in the last few days. On top of those rescued or evacuated there remains a further 800,000 people who are still waiting to be rescued by air. For a country, where there are few helicopters, this task verges on the impossible. The World Food Programme has urged Pakistan's government to quickly assist those 800,000 who, according to the World Food Program spokesperson, Amjad Jamal, "There is a real fear that they may die of hunger or disease outbreak".

Whatever the figures, the brutal truth is that there are millions without homes, food and medicine. The local stocks of rice have been depleted in Sindh and Balochistan by the washing away of the rice stocks estimated to be worth $3.7 million dollars.

There are those who question the ability of the Pakistani government to handle the situation and who claim this is the reason for a slow response from the international community. This is the wrong way to approach the problem. Firstly, having seen the American response to Katrina it is arguable that there is no government anywhere equipped to handle a disaster of this magnitude. Secondly, the government has sent all branches of the armed services who have so far carried out their task with courage and determination. Some commentators outside of Pakistan have talked about the possibility of military rule. Talk to both army and civilian authorities and they will tell you this is nonsense. As one senior army officer told us, "The army is a wing of the government, not the other way around."

Support for Pakistan at this time and into the future is essential. This is not the time or place to be playing politics.

The View from Fez will have further reports from Pakistan on the floods, the security situation and the world's response, in coming days.

No comments: