04 August 2010

Pakistan's Floods

The FT has an excellent editorial today on Pakistan's devastating floods:

The flood devastating Pakistan is not the first natural disaster the world has experienced this year. In January, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake killed more than 220,000 people. In February another earthquake struck. Measuring 8.8, it was more than a thousand times stronger than the first and ranked as the fifth most powerful ever recorded. It killed fewer than 500.

The vast discrepancy between the human tolls of these earthquakes – in Haiti and Chile respectively – illustrates how the impact of natural disasters depends more on a state’s capacity to prepare for and respond to disasters than the forces of nature that these phenomena unleash.

Chile, one of the best-run countries in Latin America, had the administrative and economic resour­ces to enforce stringent building codes and develop effective emergency response systems. Haiti, one of the world’s poorest states, had virtually no disaster relief infrastructure. International agencies struggled to distribute aid as Port-au-Prince’s docks and airport became overstretched. Much of the aid effort was dissipated.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, while it is not a Haiti, neither does it look like Chile in its ability to respond. President Asif Ali Zardari, who is making a diplomatically tricky visit to Britain this week, presides over a hollowed-out state with a tenuous grip on large parts of the country. He depends on the co-operation of the military, which has ruled Pakistan for long periods since independence.

The following excerpt from Time magazine in October, 1955 is a reminder that the region is prone to frequent and devastating floods:

Across eastern India and Pakistan, monsoon rains swept in mighty torrents between the Himalayas and the sea. In the heart of the populous Ganges valley, 10,000 villages crumbled and vanished, and farmers shared tree trunks with cobras in the worst floods since 1871. In the coastal state of Orissa, eight rivers thundered simultaneously into spate, killing at least 150, inundating 3,500 sq. mi. of drought-seared cropland. The state's 138 legislators dropped everything and rushed homeward to find out their families' fate.

That was several weeks ago, but so massive was the damage that air force planes last week still dropped goods and medicines to people clinging to floating tree trunks and housetops, almost daily added other places to the disaster list. Orissa's finance minister said: "We still do not know what s happening because we have not made contact with 25% of the villages." After a flying survey of the subcontinental ruin, the International Red Cross's Dr. Fran├žois Daubenton estimated that the floods had wrecked 28,000 villages, damaged or destroyed the homes of 45 million people. There was no way to count the cost. "In my 35 years of public health experience in Europe, Africa and Asia," said Dr. Daubenton, "I have never seen a disaster of the extent of that now being borne by India and Pakistan, or suffering so great."

The FT says of the 2010 floods, that the country's lack of ability to respond and consequent large vulnerability that,

It should come as no surprise, then, that the floods have already caused substantial damage. More than 1,400 people have been killed and a further 3m forced from their homes. Much of the infrastructure in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, a province on the north-west frontier with Afghanistan, has been des­troyed. Islamabad’s inability to mobilise or deliver aid to where it is needed has been ruthlessly exposed. There is, after all, little excuse for such ill-preparedness. What is now Pakistan has experienced at least 12 other serious floods since 1928.

The international community should help, even if inadequate state capacity means that not all aid reaches the needy. Common humanity requires nothing less.
If you'd like to help, consider a donation to Doctors Without Borders.