Last year, the floods in Pakistan were considered “one of the worst natural disasters in history,” affecting 20 million people and submerging about one-fifth of the country underwater. This year’s monsoon rains have once again wreaked havoc, affecting at least 5.4 million people, with more than 475,000 displaced from their homes. The Washington Post cited the United Natons’ statistics, noting, “In Sindh alone, the floods have killed over 220 people, damaged or destroyed some 665,000 homes and displaced more than 1.8 million people.” Balochistan has also been affected by the floods. The Atlantic, in its coverage, reported, “The disaster has once again overwhelmed the capacity of the government to assist, and the UN has asked for $357 million in international aid.”
Given the enormity of the disaster last year, it seems we should have learned many lessons by now, at the very least how to better handle or address the impact of the floods, to better mitigate the human cost of the tragedy. And yet, here we are, exactly a year later, and the numbers are still climbing. A few weeks ago, Oxfam International‘s Pakistan Director stated to the Telegraph that this year’s floods are “already worse than last year, not because of the numbers but the impact on a population already severely affected by last year’s mega-flood.“
The director went on to note,
We have more and more mosquitoes, the water is contaminated, and there’s the risk of all the public health [diseases] because there is not sufficient clean water. It’s not just about the world recognizing it, but realizing it is something we need to respond to now. People who have been displaced for a second time can’t sleep at night. They’re on the sides of the roads without shelter, suffering from diarrhoea, they’re itching and scratching.
Before these latest floods began, nearly one million people from last year’s disaster were still without permanent homes. One. Million. That number is not only a reflection of the amount of people vulnerable during this latest tragedy, but also the inability of authorities and the international community to properly respond to those affected in the last year. Although the latest floods began in August, President Asif Ali Zardari waited until September 8th to ask for help (And now he has a “special control room.” I’m serious). BBC News‘ Orla Guerin noted, “At that stage more than five million lives had already been disrupted by the floods.” She cited UN spokesperson Stacey Winston, who stated,
We responded immediately once we were asked…Officially for us to go in and set up shop, we have to be asked. Within days of the government’s request the World Food Programme had reached 140,000 people and the World Health Organization had reached hundreds of thousands with essential medical help.
And what of the government response now? When Guerin asked PM Yousaf Raza Gilani if more lessons could have been learned from last year’s disaster, he replied, “You can’t compare the two. Last year there was flooding from the Indus River, this year it’s from the rains.” Gilani also went on to stress that fewer lives have been lost this year compared to last year – 350 versus 2000.
Human lives lost are human lives lost. We can’t compare or quantify in order to justify or scapegoat our actions, or lack thereof. Doing so will not help the families who are currently drinking the same contaminated water as their livestock. It will not restore the livelihoods of the millions who have watched their homes wash away year after year. How can these communities hope to rebuild their lives if they were not even given the tools to do so the first time around? How long before this cycle of disaster & dependency become what is considered normal?
In Pakistan, the monsoon rains are not unexpected. And God knows we have more than enough problems facing the country at this time. We have been inundated – literally and figuratively – with disaster, so much so, that we have been unable to keep afloat. But for those of us who care – and all of us damn well should – we can do more than just watch as our government fumbles yet again in the face of disaster.
In the latest Friday Times, Faisal Kapadia, who has done incredible relief work with Awab Alvi and others in Sindh [via SA Relief], wrote,
We may have good intentions but in time we get tired or the funds dry up and then we have no choice but to desert the communities we are adopting on ground. This is why I believe that every initiative should be tied to the local government and managed jointly. In this manner, the local government can point out where relief should be directed so no overlapping takes place. Often we have gone out with a plan in mind but have after being briefed by the local DCO realized that we must change direction because someone has already distributed relief there in the morning. Failure to coordinate with local officials leads to haphazard relief and then much grief for dependent communities.
This is a really important point. Sometimes in our efforts to help, we end up replicating what others have already done, making our attempts repetitive and relatively ineffective. I’ve also been interested in the nexus of innovation and relief, and how these types of solutions can become cost-effective ways of providing affected communities what they need rather than what we think they need. Organizations like Day One Response, which provides clean drinking water to those affected by disaster, can be potential stakeholders in the discussion.
So beyond listening, collaborating, and partnering with local officials and reputable relief organizations, think about how relief is only the first step in this recovery process. And while our energy is well-spent donating and supporting the relief phase, if the disaster taught me anything last year [via Relief4Pakistan], it’s that this same energy slows in the rehabilitation stage, which is just as necessary.