Pakistan: Flood disaster resembles "slow tsunami"

GENEVA —With an area the size of Italy now underwater and largely inaccessible, Pakistan needs immediate massive relief that the United States has the logistics capability and resources to provide.

But the last few years of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it politically difficult for the U.S. to deploy military helicopters and transport planes, even on humanitarian missions, especially in areas struggling with extremist groups.

The scale of the disaster is so vast that even large international aid agencies are struggling to reach many parts of Pakistan.

The fact that Pakistan’s homegrown Taliban has repeatedly attacked aid groups operating in the country’s stricken northwest frontier doesn’t help matters.

The flooding has been so dramatic that even the U.N. headquarters here in Geneva is uncertain exactly how many people are in need of help. The Pakistan government said more than 20 million people have been affected. The U.N. said anywhere from 6 million to 8 million are in serious need of immediate assistance and an estimated 900,000 homes have been completely destroyed. At least 4 million people are now without shelter.

The World Health Organization in Geneva reported Friday that more than 400,000 Pakistanis are suffering from acute diarrhea from drinking polluted water and another 120,000 are suffering from respiratory diseases. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, speaking at the U.N., described the situation as a “tsunami in slow motion,” with consequences that are likely to accumulate and grow larger with time.

U.N. aid agencies confirm that while the flood is receding in the north, the mass of water is moving towards the more densely populated south. Far from over, the crisis is actually growing.

Increasing airlift capacity is a top priority, said Emilia Casella, a spokesperson for the World Food Program (WFP), in Geneva.

“We can reach some of these areas one day, and then the next we can’t” she said.

WFP's goal is to provide food for 6 million people, but so far only 1.2 million have been reached. It is relying on 15 helicopters that can carry around three metric tons each. Ten of the helicopters are on loan from the Pakistani army. WFP has received authorization to bring five more civilian helicopters into the country and it would like to have more, but whether it could actually use them is academic.

“The point is that we don’t even have funding for the five new helicopters that we have,” Casella said. She adds that WFP would not hesitate to fly food in on any kind of transport, including transport from the U.S. military, but that depends on political decisions beyond the control of the WFP.

Thomas Schwarz, a communications officer for CARE International who has been working in the stricken area, agrees that at this point, people don’t care who provides the assistance.

“When you are on the ground, you don’t care who is providing assistance, you just take it,” Schwarz said in a phone interview from Pakistan.

Despite urgent calls from the United Nations and the emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, the rest of the world has been slow to realize just how desperate the situation in Pakistan really is.

Melanie Brooks, who coordinates communications for CARE’s emergency group based in Geneva, said CARE’s available funding for the crisis is hovering at around 15 percent of the amount actually needed.

“We have had two massive disasters in one year,” Brooks said. “People extended themselves to help out in Haiti and then this happened. It is hard to remember when you had two crises of this magnitude at the same time.”

Brooks adds that it is hard for most people to understand the implications of the crisis when all they see is news photos of people wading through water. When the flood first began, she said, even humanitarian organizations mistook it for standard seasonal flooding.

“It took us a few days to realize what was really happening,” she said.

Recognizing the need to help Pakistan, the United States has stepped up its humanitarian aid commitment from $90 million to $150 million. Even with that boost, however, it seems doubtful that international aid agencies have either the funding or the resources to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.