Flood waters and trickling aid in Pakistan

Pakistan is suffering from its worst flooding in decades, leaving 1,500 dead and displacing  many millions more. The UN says that the number of people suffering from the ongoing rains could top the the 2004 tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the earthquake in Haiti combined: They estimate that 13 million Pakistanis have been displaced by the floods so far, 2 million more than in the other disasters.

And yet, unlike with those catastrophes, aid has been slow in making it to Pakistan: Less than half the requested $460 million in aid has been pledged, let alone donated — compared with the swift response to Haiti. Why?

They cited a variety of factors for the sluggish reaction, starting with minimal media coverage globally and a relatively low death toll. Other elements, they said, included the preoccupation with economic problems; donor fatigue with natural disasters and the August vacation season when many people pay less attention to the news. Finally, Pakistan itself suffers from an image problem as a hotbed of Taliban activity and the source of renegade nuclear sales, which can give donors pause.

This makes sense, up to a point: Pakistan is often in the news, but it’s not often good news. Americans may be conditioned to expect to hear the worst out of Pakistan, and simply haven’t grasped the scale of what is happening there yet. Donor fatigue could also play a part — but then, I haven’t seen or heard the usual pleas from aid organizations and the celebrities backing them, like we did after the earthquake in Haiti. And Pakistan may have a reputation as an unstable nation, but the same could easily be said of Haiti.

Sadly, this argument makes the most sense:

The international outpouring after recent disasters like Haiti or the Asian tsunami in 2004 was driven partly by the huge, sudden loss of life and the striking images of rescue efforts, he said.

A slow-moving flood with a death toll of about 1,500 people fails to provoke a similar reaction. “An earthquake is a much more dramatic, emotional, telegenic event because it happens so quickly,” Mr. Holmes said.

It seems coarse to talk about a “telegenic natural disaster,” but I suspect that’s what is happening here. 1,500 dead is nothing compared with the six-figure death toll out of Haiti — and yet the rains will continue, displacing more people, destroying more homes and farmland, and making it more difficult for aid to reach those most in need.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to help correct that problem: Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps, and the Red Cross are good places to start.

(Image: Reuters)

Margaret Cabaniss

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Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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