Pakistan is literally half a world away and already a hot spot for news.
Ask most Americans what they associate with Pakistan, and assuredly the most likely answers are the fight against terrorism and how the country’s complex relationship with Afghanistan and militant Islam impacts U.S. military involvement.
But Pakistan now has a problem on a humanitarian scale which is truly difficult to wrap your brain around. Approximately 20 million people have been displaced by monsoon flooding which has put roughly 20 percent of the country underwater.
How many really are 20 million people?
The population of New York State is about 19 million people.
The population of Texas is about 24 million people.
So, estimate somewhere between those figures and digest those numbers.
With the Haiti earthquake having come on Jan. 12th, it seemed impossible to imagine a catastrophe on a larger scale, much less one seven months later. It’s part of the reason why aid to Pakistan – along with its international perception – has been slow to build. To date, the U.S. has pledged $150 million in aid, the largest amount of any individual nation.
And as has been the case in Haiti, it is merely the tip of the iceberg, with years of rebuilding a fragile agricultural infrastructure and economy once the floodwaters recede.
“Thankfully the flood’s death toll has remained relatively low but disasters can’t be measured by just the number of dead,” said Donna Derr, Church World Service director of humanitarian assistance, in a press release. “Effective humanitarian response must be measured against the all the people affected, just struggling to survive.”
That response is severely hampered by the washout of roads and bridges, said Rachel Brumbaugh, an emergency program officer with World Vision, in an interview with Everyday Christian.
“The water not only washed away homes and livelihoods, but it also washed away the roads and bridges that made it possible to get around,” Brumbaugh said. “Up to half of the affected population still hasn't been reached with aid because access is nearly impossible. World Vision is mobilizing as quickly as possible and will find creative ways, like using smaller vehicles and alternative routes, to reach people with life-sustaining aid.”
Brumbaugh said that 150 World Vision staffers were already in the country. The organization has operated there since 1992.
“Being engaged in a country like Pakistan before a disaster allows us to understand the context better and establish good relationships with local people and organizations,” she said. “This gives us an advantage during a disaster because we're able to quickly determine the most vulnerable areas and the communities with the greatest needs.”
She also offered up another chilling geographic analogy to put the scope of the disaster in perspective.
“When you look at the number of people affected in each disaster, the flooding in Pakistan is unparalleled. It is much worse than the Haiti quake, the tsunami, or any other natural disaster in recent history. We are glad that many mothers, fathers and children were spared, but a lower death toll can actually mean that there is more need because the number of survivors is higher, making the response needed far greater and more urgent.
“However, it's still difficult to grasp the scope of the damage throughout the country. The UN estimates that at least 62,000 square miles of land are currently under water. Imagine what would happen if the banks of the Mississippi River overflowed all the way from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico? That's just a fraction of what families in Pakistan are experiencing right now.”
Water borne diseases are of particular concern, such as cholera, Brumbaugh said. Lack of access to clean potable water can also quickly worsen otherwise ordinary treatable illnesses.
“After three weeks, many people still have no shelter and have been flooded out of their homes,” she said. “Everyone is wondering what the future will bring. All of their livelihoods and agriculture are gone.
“The first step for World Vision is to help these families by providing food, clean water to drink, shelter, dry clothing and bedding so that they can restart their lives. By providing these basic needs, families will be able to begin thinking about rebuilding their lives and their livelihoods. Providing basic health care to the displaced families is also one of World Vision's top priorities at this time.”