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Communities confront flood fallout


Food Aid recipients wait inside a small van they have jointly hired to transfer their food packages back to their homes.The war weary population of Shangla District in the restive frontier region of northern Pakistan have little time for self pity. Their response to Pakistan's colossal flood disaster, aptly likened by UN Secretary-General Ban ki Moon to a 'slow motion tsunami', was decisive, the antithesis of victimhood.

While they warmly accept the staples of relief — food, water and shelter — they know through a history of crippling food insecurity and mass displacement that they are masters of their own destiny. Manfully they clear the roads, reclaim what remains and look to the 'Rabi' planting season and the blessings of Islam for comfort and strength.

The statistics are staggering; the swollen Indus River reaching 40 times its capacity, 20 million affected, thousands of villages abandoned then swamped. The asset base of agrarian farmers and livestock herders stripped and scattered from the land.

By all definitions, this flood disaster struck the loudest alarm bell and stirred the loftiest humanitarian compulsion to act. Yet only now, in the decisive period between emergency and recovery, are the gears of the response being engaged.

Pakistan has been a magnet to misery of late with the current crisis set amid a background of resurgent militancy and simmering political and tribal tensions. Thus, when the flood disaster spilled into the international media, good will took a moment for second thought. With President Zardari conspicuous by his absence and the civilian government floundering, Pakistan's Disaster Management Authority became an object of ridicule.

Further suspicions were raised by the emergence of Islamist charities at the frontline of relief efforts, and 'ghost camps' allegedly set up to swindle humanitarian aid. Local newspapers were replete with stories of an invisible government, contributing nothing to the millions suffering on the ground.

When international news cameras were turned on, familiar images emerged; food parcels tumbling from helicopters or pitched from trucks, and pallets of aid stranded in warehouses. The notion of complete disorder was complete.

Consequently the dollars barely trickled in, with many governments failing to rapidly allocate emergency funding so sorely needed. The response in the US was indicative of this sluggishness: by 27 August a mere $12 million had been raised by US NGOs compared with $500 million for the Haiti earthquake over the same period. While disasters rarely draw uniform responses from the hip pocket, the financial shortfalls were alarming.

Till now, the UN flood response plan remains well behind its target with the funding pipeline reduced to a trickle. Evidently, the search for the billions of dollars of relief and reconstruction funding will be an arduous one.

Amid the horror and gloom there have been moments of inspiration in the flood crisis that have largely gone unreported. The National Volunteer Movement in Pakistan has mobilised hundreds of thousands of people since the flood crisis began who have collected food parcels, shelter materials and cash for flood victims. Host families have spontaneously opened their homes to the needy.

Pakistani Doctors, Nurses and Teachers have offered their professional services; others are present at the myriad of displaced persons camps that have sprouted around the flood plains.

While the UN and international agencies often feature at the vanguard of emergency responses, more often than not it's this instinctive support from within that nourishes and nurtures a community through the worst of a disaster.

The failures of the response both internal to Pakistan and beyond are well noted. However it is abundantly clear that this disaster would have overwhelmed the most stable and resource-flush nation in the world. Hurricane Katrina relied on massive financial and material aid inputs from across the world yet even today, many in Louisiana remain without a permanent home.

In a country prone to the vagaries of nature, much more needs to be done to build resilience and reduce vulnerability to disasters in Pakistan and to revive the government's credibility as an assertive and competent administrator for humanitarian relief.

What Pakistan's 'super flood' has taken will be hard to regain. Beneath the diminishing flood tide are millions of homes and vast tracts of agricultural land sodden and spoiled. Inevitably in such circumstances it is the poor who must battle on with hope as their best asset.

The Australian Government's response has been sizable and decisive. Similarly, EU trade concessions and drop-the-debt initiatives offer longer term prospects for bridging what looms as a massive financial deficit in rehabilitation funds.

Pakistan's standing within the international community has rarely been exalted and the flood crisis has exposed critical failings at all levels of government that have compromised the lives of millions. The combination of incompetence and 'image prejudice' has indeed been compelling.

International guardianship through the recovery phase must be vigilant and far-sighted. Equally though, as people and nations, our compassion to give and give again to people in need should remain unequivocal.

Ben FraserBen Fraser is an aid worker who recently returned from flood-devastated Pakistan. Pictured: Food aid recipients wait inside a small van they have jointly hired to transfer their food packages back to their homes. Photo by Ben Fraser

Topic tags: Ben Fraser, Pakistan, flood, victims, aid, hurricane katrina, UN Secretary-General Ban ki Moon



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Existing comments

What a practical and generous help it would be to Pakistan which carries an inordinate share of the world's "refugee burden" if Australia were to significantly increase this year's quota of refugee and humanitarian places in order to resettle some of the Afghan refugees illegally resident there, and fast track the resettlement of the relatives of Australians who are in the immigration queue of humanitarian applicants. I understand that Hazara illegal residents are living in fear and abject poverty around and in Peshawar and Quetta which, like all cities, are under pressure from those Pakistani citizens dispossessed and ruined by the floods.

Frederika Steen | 28 September 2010  

I heartily endorse everything Frederika says.

Pirrial Clift | 28 September 2010  

So do I.

Gavan | 28 September 2010  

Thanks to Ben Fraser for the grass roots focus of his article which reveals that many Pakistanis untouched by the floods are not standing by idly.

Good to read Freddie Steen's comments too.
Her solution is both practical and compassionate. Too often desperate and damaged people are labelled queue jumpers or illegals. The Australian Gvt. is giving generously on our behalf, but our refugee policies are too often driven by the need to win elections.

Making voting capital out of human misery is wrong.

Hanifa Deen | 01 October 2010  

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