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Pakistan: An epic disaster needs an epic response

Wheels down Islamabad and my Blackberry beeps. A message flashes on the screen, and then another. “Weather Channel interview tomorrow at 0610,” says a US colleague. “Please get in touch,” writes the New Delhi-based correspondent of a British newspaper. “Can you do an interview for ABC radio?,” a producer asks. And so it goes.

I’m in Pakistan to help Save the Children generate public interest in the nation’s worst flooding disaster in living memory. An area the size of Italy has been swamped in monsoon floodwater causing mass devastation to infrastructure like roads and bridges.

In total the floods that have swept across swathes of Pakistan have impacted a staggering 21 million people. Nearly one million homes have been damaged or destroyed. At least 17 million acres of agricultural land has been obliterated leaving millions without food.

Even before the floods, 40% of Pakistanis were food insecure. But now with exacerbated shortages and prices spiralling, a period of political instability is possible which would make the poor even more vulnerable.

What’s more, up to 8 million children are at risk and especially vulnerable to waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea – a major killer of children under the age of five. Early this week in the southern province of Sindh, the government confirmed the deaths of six children who had died of dehydration caused by severe watery diarrhea.

To compound the misery, officials say that up to 2,000 schools have been destroyed and this will have a major impact on children’s education in Pakistan. Opening temporary schools and reconstruction of damaged schools is essential to ensure that children avoid missing out on their education.

With so many people affected by the floods, why has the international community been so slow scaling up its response?

Media speculates that the international donor community is suffering from donor fatigue. Others say Pakistan is suffering from “negative PR”, and still others suggest the floods do not have the visceral impact of other disasters like, say, earthquakes where the death tolls tend to be greater.

Despite the widespread destruction in Pakistan the death toll has been mercifully low with only 1,600 reported deaths.

Compare that to the 230,000 people who died in the Haiti earthquake early this year and it is easy to see why this disaster has not caught the imagination of the international community.

But the sad truth is the flooding has affected more people than the Indian Ocean tsunami, Haiti earthquake and Kashmir earthquake combined.

Clearly this is an epic disaster that requires an epic response from the donor community.

So, once again I find myself on the frontline of disaster this time in an effort to keep the Pakistan floods at the forefront of people’s minds.

What is Save the Children’s response? With 500 aid workers in Pakistan we are one of the largest aid agencies working to get life saving aid like food, water and medicine to families and children.

What’s more we’ve been working with our trusted network of local Pakistani relief organizations for nearly 30 years, so we’re confident our aid will reach the most in need.

In the last 18 days our mobile health clinics have fanned out across the worst affected areas to reach over 30,000 people in places like DI Khan, Swat, Rajanpur, and Sukkur. Another 20,000 people have been received non-food and food items from Save the Children.

But we could do even better. Because of a lack of non-military helicopters we have to rely on primitive modes of transport to deliver aid like trekking on foot up into the mountains, or transporting relief supplies by donkey.

Just last week in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North West Frontier Province) our aid workers trekked 14 hours to reach remote communities in the mountains.

The establishment of an air bridge of UN helicopters would speed up the delivery of aid, and help us reach more families and children.

Meanwhile our aid effort is hampered by inadequate funding, and damaged infrastructure including collapsed, or submerged roads and bridges.

Just a few days ago our aid workers in Swat Valley found their path blocked by a huge mudslide. It’s precarious work and I’m full of admiration for Save the Children aid workers who have put themselves in harms way to ensure aid reaches the most vulnerable.

Over the next six months we will reach two million people with relief supplies to help them rebuild their shattered lives and livelihoods.

For now though the top priorities for children and their families are food, clean drinking water and healthcare. Our teams are already reporting increased rates of diarrhea, fever and skin infections, so treating people and especially young children is crucial to saving lives.

While I’m not involved in the direct delivery of aid, I have a role to play. My colleagues around the world are busily lining up media interviews for me so that I can urge the international community not to forget the flood-affected people of Pakistan who, through no fault of their own, have fallen foul of one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

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