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In Pakistan, pledged donations aren't enough

Opinion: Donors slow to recognize huge magnitude of floods.

Finally, it may just be that different types of disasters affect us in different ways. Many will remember the devastating footage of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The extent of the devastation — entire villages obliterated so that you’d hardly know they’d ever been there — took your breath away. Nearly a quarter of a million people were killed. You couldn’t not be moved. And perhaps consequently, one of the defining features of the response was the unprecedented size of private donations — so much so that the public’s generosity became a news story in itself. More than $5 billion was donated by the general public.

The devastation caused by the floods takes a bit more understanding. The death toll is relatively low. Without walking along the roads where people have congregated and are crouching under bed-frames draped with cloth to get some relief from the sweltering heat, and without talking to people about what they’ve lost, it’s hard to grasp the extent to which lives have been devastated.

I spoke to a woman yesterday who’d fled her village with her husband and six children, carrying nothing but the clothes they were wearing. They’d lost their cows and buffalos, as well as the season’s rice crop. She said they didn’t expect to be able to cultivate their fields again for at least six months, and that she was worried about what they’d do when the winter came.

In the coming years, as the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events continues to increase, more and more countries — many of them the poorest in the world — will be hit by weather-related disasters. The Pakistan floods must serve as a wake-up call.

Agencies such as Oxfam have been doing their best to scale up their operations as fast as possible, utilizing as best they can the contributions made by donor governments and the general public. But we’ve only been able to meet a fraction of the needs. Across all affected areas, the U.N. estimates that we’ve met less than 10 percent of the urgent need for clean water and sanitation.

The World Health Organization said last week that 3.5 million children were at risk of waterborne disease. But with the U.N. appeal so critically under-funded, agencies simply do not have the funds to scale up with the speed required to avert what is rapidly becoming a serious public health crisis.

The public and private response to the tsunami and the Haiti earthquake give us an indication of what as an international community we are capable of. Somehow, and soon, we need to find it within ourselves to respond with the same generosity to the people of Pakistan.

Neva Khan is Oxfam's country director in Pakistan.