It’s flooding again in Pakistan. While not as severe as last year’s unprecedented deluge – which affected 20 million people – this year’s floods are nonetheless severe, and likely to grow worse. Since the onset of the monsoons in August, 5.4 million people have been affected and more than 800,000 displaced to shelters and informal camps.
A year ago, in September 2010, I traveled to Pakistan to assess the situation of the millions of poor and vulnerable people rendered homeless by the worst flooding in the country’s history (read the 2010 In Depth Report
). As I sit here today reading the reports and watching the footage of floodwaters once again submerging homes and fields, seeing families huddled under plastic sheeting, it’s like déjà vu. So are the complaints of a weak government response, and of over-crowded and unsanitary conditions in camps and informal settlements.
But some things are not the same. The most important difference is the fact that last year’s mega-floods substantially increased poverty and malnutrition. This meant people were even more vulnerable when this year’s monsoons let loose. Millions of people rendered homeless by last year’s floods still lack secure shelter. So the impact of this year’s floods is far more severe for those still struggling to recover from last year’s catastrophe.
Another major difference between last year’s and this year’s floods is the political context in which they are occurring -- namely, one marked by a precipitous deterioration in US-Pakistan relations. Increased mistrust on the side of the Pakistani government has made it harder for international aid organizations to operate in the country. On the US side, frustration over the perceived lack of cooperation in the war on terror has made it difficult to convince policy makers and the American public to invest more money in Pakistan.
But reactionary, short-sighted responses are misguided. There are important lessons learned from last year’s floods that should not be overlooked when one considers whether the United States can or should step up. First is the fact that the United States’ strong response to last year’s floods in Pakistan made an important difference not only in terms of saving lives and alleviating human suffering, but also in avoiding secondary disasters such as a food crisis and the outbreak of water-born diseases. As I noted in my most recent report on Pakistan
the response to the 2010 floods, while far from perfect, was incredibly effective both in terms of people who received emergency aid, as well as in comparison to other recent disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. This was largely due to the ability of the Pakistani government, the US and other donor governments, and humanitarian actors to come together and overcome significant resource and coordination challenges.
It is no doubt harder to measure the extent to which US flood aid contributed to our longer-term goals of alleviating poverty, promoting democratic governance, and building a more stable Pakistan. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) must therefore institute accountability and monitoring measures to ensure that humanitarian aid is helping to meet these goals (for example, by measuring outcomes like increased disaster preparedness, enhanced participation by women, rather than only outputs such as numbers of people who received plastic sheeting).
But in the meantime, the stakes remain high. It would be a mistake for U.S. policy makers to overlook the long-term value of providing flood aid now. This aid demonstrates America’s unflagging support for the Pakistani people and helps to mitigate the potential negative impact of the floods on the country’s already tenuous security situation.