Flooding in Pakistan has killed 1,600 and is affecting an estimated 20 million people. Six million lack access to food, shelter, and water. The report of a single confirmed cholera case (in the Swat valley) is generating some headlines, but the important point is that a lack of clean water makes the spread of any diarrheal disease far more likely.
UNICEF warns that “more than 3 million children are at high risk of deadly water-borne diseases in Pakistan,” and cites a WHO projection of up to 1.5 million cases of diarrheal diseases that could occur over the next three months. These aren’t just troublesome cases of intestinal discomfort; diarrhea can be deadly, especially for children. Each year, 1.4 million children die from diarrheal diseases, and 860,000 children perishing directly or indirectly from malnutrition arising from repeated diarrhea or intestinal nematodes. Diarrheal disease can be treated with oral rehydration solutions, but distribution of such items – as well as food, water, and other basics – is a challenge when so many roads are washed out.
After visiting flood-ravaged areas of Pakistan, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “In the past I have visited the scenes of many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this.”
From his remarks, and from the numbers in the news accounts, this sounds like a major disaster. But why does it seem like the response is so anemic, especially when compared to the outpouring of support that followed the January earthquake in Haiti? (That earthquake claimed far more lives than the floods have so far, but the floods have left far more people homeless and hungry.)
Based on my entirely subjective assessment, it seems like Pakistan’s flooding is getting far less media coverage than Haiti’s earthquake, and people don’t seem to be bringing it up in conversation. I myself haven’t been thinking about it much, and wasn’t until today, after I decided to pull up some news stories about it, that I’ve finally gotten around to making a donation to a relief organization. My memory of the Haiti earthquake is that I spent a lot more time thinking about it, and made my first donation within a couple of days after the quake. It seemed like people kept referring to it, too, either to talk about a particularly moving news story they’d seen, or just as a reminder that whatever complaints we might be dealing with aren’t nearly as bad as what people elsewhere in the world are suffering.
The UN has requested $459 million for emergency relief and has received or gotten commitments for 35% of that. The majority of that has come from the US and UK governments, reports Nathaniel Gronewold of Greenwire. Aid agencies report that responses from individual US donors have been slow, though.
On the list of possible factors behind the lag in individual US donations, Gronewold starts with “public opinion of Pakistan” and cites a June CNN poll showing “78 percent of Americans hold mostly unfavorable views of Pakistan.” I’d like to think people can hold an unfavorable opinion of a country but still be willing to help its citizens get food and water after a natural disaster; maybe when it comes to donations, though, decisions aren’t entirely rational.
I expect the slow pace of donations is mostly a function of less media coverage (compared to the Haiti earthquake). It’s not like the major news organizations are failing to cover Pakistan’s disaster at all, but so far I don’t think I’ve seen many stories about individual families’ struggles – and those are the pieces that spur donations. Maybe reporters are on vacation, or news organizations can’t afford to send flocks of reporters to disaster areas twice in one year. Or, maybe Russia’s peat fires and China’s landslides (also terrible disasters worthy of attention) are resulting in media attention being spread more thinly than it otherwise would be. (And some news organizations are focusing their resources on a local zoning decision in lower Manhattan.)
I also suspect the relatively gradual nature of Pakistan’s flooding makes it harder for news organizations and individuals to grasp the severity of the impact. The situation didn’t go from normal to “20 million people homeless” in a single day. Plus, slowly rising waters just don’t seem as terrifying as sudden major shifts in the tectonic plates.
Regardless of how much attention they’re getting from international news organizations and individual donors, the people in Pakistan are facing a catastrophe. The Washington Post has compiled a list of organizations that are accepting donations for the relief effort.