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Inter Press Service

Pakistan: Flood Fatigue Closes Eyes to New Disaster

Zofeen Ebrahim

Shaista, a three-year-old girl, displaced by floods, holds a drink of water as she takes refuge with her family in a camp for flood victims in the Badin district of Pakistan's Sindh province September 23, 2011. The latest floods, triggered by monsoon rains, have killed more than 230 people, destroyed or damaged 1.2 million houses and flooded 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares) since late last month, officials and Western aid groups say. More than 300,000 people have been moved to shelters. Some 800,000 families hit by last year's floods are still homeless. Aid groups have warned of a growing risk of fatal diseases. (REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

KARACHI - Men and women wading through waist-deep water with infants straddling their sides; a convoy of donkey carts laden with entire families’ possessions moving towards dry land; people being rescued by uniformed men in rubber boats; ailing elderly carried on rope cots; bird’s-eye views of vast tracts of land submerged under water.

The televised images of such enormous devastation in Pakistan may well have been reruns from last year, but they aren’t. Rather, the glaring pictures of helplessness, starvation, disease and death captured this past month mark the second straight year of floods wreaking havoc on 17 of the Sindh Province’s 23 districts, leaving 11 of them completely inundated.

As water levels remain stagnant throughout much of the province, which experts say is facing worse flooding than last year, official figures estimate that eight million people have been affected and 600,000 homes totally destroyed.

The death toll has already hit 400 since the floods began in August.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United Nations food agency, claims the rains have destroyed 73 percent of the region’s crops and 67 percent of food stocks.

"I foresee growing food insecurity in Pakistan as there has been significant damage to cotton and sugarcane; vegetables and fodder have been destroyed and it will not be possible to cultivate wheat in November either," says Dr Bakshal Lashari, director of the Institute of Water Resources Engineering & Management at Mehran University in the Sindh’s Jamshoro district. "The rural economy of Sindh depends on agriculture and livestock and both have been severely affected," he told IPS.

According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), over 94,000 heads of livestock have perished, with "many more at risk of dying if they don’t get fodder and are not vaccinated against disease," said Lashari.

In the days to come, he added, this significant loss of agricultural land and livestock will impact not only the lives of those directly affected by the floods, but the whole country.

Yet the disaster has failed to move the international community or the people of Pakistan to dig deep into their pockets. The response towards the victims has been, at best, half-hearted. The United Nations effort to raise 357 million dollars has resulted in the collection of just 19 million dollars.

One possible explanation for this apathy could be the dearth of news reporting from the flood-affected areas, leading people to believe that the floods aren’t as bad as last year’s, which submerged a fifth of the South Asian country and directly affected 21 million people.

"People are simply not aware how bad it is as the media is not highlighting it...floods don’t sell," said Faisal Kapadia, a young entrepreneur, talking to IPS. Now, he says the "trust factor" has decreased because the "mainstream media, instead of encouraging private and public philanthropic ventures, choose to focus on incidents of corruption and (mismanagement) of relief efforts in Pakistan, (even though) this takes place everywhere in the world."

Last week the private television channel DawnNews ran a four-hour telethon about the floods for two days, but Sophia Jamal, one of the programme’s hosts, said the whole exercise was not only "quite painful" but futile: "People called in to chat or ask what the government was doing. I had half a mind to ask them what they were doing for their part," she told IPS.

Beyond simple indifference to the plight of flood-affected victims, experts believe that the government’s mismanagement of the relief effort last year may have led some to turn their backs on the current crisis.

Speaking to IPS, Mubashir Akram, spokesperson for the UK-based charity Oxfam said experts developed an exhaustive plan for modern disaster risk reduction (DRR) steps after the 2010 floods, which the government failed to implement.

Among the nine priority areas identified by the NDMA were institutional and legal arrangements for disaster risk management (DRM), hazard and vulnerability assessment, setting up a multi-hazard early warning system, mainstreaming DRR into development, capacity development for post-disaster recovery, training, education and awareness.

"The measures would have required spending just 30 million dollars then and would have saved billions of dollars now," he said.

The NDMA has reported that the government still has 56.8 million dollars left from last year’s fund, which it failed to release when people needed it most. Former NDMA chairman Nadeem Ahmed said "bureaucratic hitches" led to the non-utilisation of the funds.

Naeem Sadiq, Karachi-based businessman was among the many urbanites who "saw the destruction and helplessness of inundated millions on such a large scale" for the very first time with his own eyes. Along with a few prominent philanthropists, he formed a group that conducted flood relief and rehabilitation work until the onset of the floods this year.

He too has observed a significant waning of enthusiasm or a "tragedy burnout". "Some level of desensitisation and some fatigue, which is natural, have crept in this time," Sadiq told IPS.

"Donor fatigue is a major issue," agreed Kapadia. "People are tired of one disaster after another hitting this land. The economic conditions are very bad so people are donating less this time than last year, simply because they have less."

But not everyone is feeling the dip in enthusiasm. Businessman Salim Tabani and his like-minded friends remain are working to provide immediate relief. In 2010 they distributed rations to 150,000 people over a period of three months. "In addition we finished building 1,000 wooden homes and 30 concrete ones for those whose homes were completely destroyed last year," he said.

This year the group has collected about 20 percent of what they had gathered in 2010, primarily from the same donors. He finds "the excitement is less this year. I guess people are now used to these natural crises."

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