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Pakistan floods: Worse to come?

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18 August 2010 13:40

Peter McCawley, a specialist on Asian economic issues at the ANU, is completing a book with Sisira Jayasuriya of LaTrobe University about the delivery of assistance following the Asian tsunami. 

For those of us who study responses to megadisasters, events in Pakistan are distressing and all too predictable. Fifteen million or more Pakistanis are locked into what is becoming a well-known post-disaster cycle of desperate need, neglect, government hand-wringing, and (it is safe to predict) long delays in the provision of decent levels of assistance.

It is, as a matter of fact, an outrage. The Pakistan Government should certainly do better. But so should the international community. More, much more, needs to be done to respond to mass disasters in poor countries.

The cycle begins with the failure of both domestic and international policy-makers to prepare disaster-preparedness programs in poor countries. As the International Red Cross Federation pointed out in the World Disasters Report last year, better early warning systems are needed. The absence of disaster-preparedness programs means that, when a megadisaster occurs (the Asian tsunami in 2004, cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year, and now the floods in Pakistan), almost everybody is unprepared. Coordination is almost always a major headache.

The failure of governments (both at home and abroad) to act quickly is very common. Astonishingly, as the floods in Pakistan were building up last week, President Zardari of Pakistan persisted with an official visit to Europe. And then, on return, he nipped off again overseas for a one-day visit to Russia.

But it's not only domestic leaders who fail to respond quickly. The international community is usually tardy as well.

Everybody seems to find excuses. Everybody has other priorities (as Stephen Smith has noted, here in Australia the media is focused on the election), and anyway, a favourite response from international aid agencies and governments is that 'we are waiting for a detailed assessment of needs from the field.' They might, one feels, try watching a TV screen, for a start. Certain needs, such as fast guarantees of firm financing for urgent supplies, are pretty obvious.

The welcome news is that, on this occasion, the UN has acted quickly. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has already issued a useful Initial Floods Emergency Relief Plan.

But too often, when the international community finally gets around to focusing on needs, the promises of financial support are slow in coming and meagre in amount. Bill Clinton, co-chair of the international commission overseeing assistance for Haiti, recently pointed out that, of the monies pledged by the international community to help in Haiti, fully six months after the disaster only 10% had been disbursed. And of the $US1.15 billion of aid promised by the US, only $30 million (about 3%) has actually been paid into the donor fund. The rest is 'tied up in Congress.'

An important part of the answer to the problem of supplying aid quickly after megadisasters is to provide more help in the form of cash. Donors are often reluctant to provide cash aid because they worry about corruption and how disaster victims will use the funds. But there are problems with all kinds of aid. Aid provided in kind (food, shelter, medical supplies) can be stolen, takes time to move, and often ends up in the wrong hands. 

But cash aid, at least in the short term, may be of very limited help in the Pakistan disaster. 

An unusual feature of the Pakistan megadisaster is that, while the initial loss of life has been relatively low, huge economic damage has been caused by the floods across widespread areas, especially in the agriculture sector. Food is already in short supply and in some places food prices have already doubled. It will be some time before a full assessment of the economic damage is available. However, reports suggest that the floods will deliver a heavy blow to the entire economy. For the millions of Pakistanis who live outside of the immediate flood zones, the worst may yet be to come.

Photo by Flickr user Jacob Freeze, used under a Creative Commons license. 

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